Friday 28 November 2008

The arrest of Damian Green

Today we read of the arrest of Damian Green, an opposition politician, on suspicion of conspiring to commit misconduct in a public office and aiding and abetting, counselling or procuring misconduct in a public office. The alleged misconduct appears to be the leaking of Home Office documents connected with immigration and other matters.

There is as yet no sign that any of the leaks imperilled national security, and every sign that they were merely intensely embarrassing to the Government. If a civil servant did leak them, that civil servant would have been in breach of his duty, although he might not have committed misconduct in a public office because there is a public interest defence to that offence.

We will have to wait for more information on what was involved in this case. But as things look at the moment, it does make a very strong case for changing the rules so that all Government documents are made publicly available when that would not give the game away to criminals or terrorists. (I am against publicising methods used by the armed forces, the security services and the police, or how our weapons work, or the names of our spies.) There was nothing wrong with the documents already mentioned by the press coming into the public domain. Any civil servant who leaks such material, and any MP or journalist who publicises it, should not be prosecuted for anything at all. We need to be defended against the folly and abuse to which all governments are prone, and there can be no surer defence than our being able to see what they are up to. Plato had some funny ideas about government, but in saying that the guardians should go about their business in a way that was open to all to inspect, and in the interests of all, he was absolutely right (Republic, 416-420).

Sunday 2 November 2008

Anonymous officials

Every now and then, we hear that a Government spokesman said something, or that an official did something or other. The civil servants in question are hardly ever named. When internal papers are released, for example the papers on tax changes made in 1997 which affected pension funds, the names of the civil servants are blotted out. We see the same sort of thing at a local level, when we hear that "a police officer" or "a social worker" did something or other.

One justification for this anonymity is that ministers, who are very public figures, are the ones who are responsible to Parliament for what happens in their departments and for the decisions taken by the Government. But that is a pretty thin justification now that ministers do not resign when their departments blunder. They do not really take responsibility.

I propose that the press should do away with this polite anonymity. It should not be "A Ministry of Defence spokesman said that equipping our troops properly was a priority" but "Fred Smith, a Ministry of Defence spokesman, said that ...". Fred might not be happy about this. He might say that he was only a mouthpiece, repeating what he had been told to say. That would be true, but if his name was out there, he might be more reluctant to put out waffle behind which the big chiefs could hide. They might be forced by their own spokesmen to be straight with us. That would be a good thing.

Likewise, if it was not "a police officer" or "a social worker", but a named individual, the thought in the mind of each such person that he or she would become known as the person responsible might encourage him or her to act with common sense. Most such people act with common sense anyway, and we should be proud of them. But a few get it so badly wrong that they must have a very odd view of the world, and we should know who they are. We pay their wages.

Likewise, enquiries into mistakes should name those responsible. The Poynter report on HM Revenue & Customs' loss of data discs related to child benefit referred to official A, official B and so on. Perhaps it had to be so in order to get the officials to co-operate. But it should not have been so. A, B and C are real people, some of whom goofed.

Finally, I can see no reason why the public at large should not be told the names of officials working on each policy development project. Sometimes one or two names are revealed, usually as contact points for consultation document responses. But if people whose wages we are forced to pay run policy development exercises which go nowhere, or which go in odd directions, we should know who they are.