Archive for April 2010
From “Mistakes were made but not by me”, quoting Lenny Bruce on the 1960 TV Presidential debates:
I would be with a bunch of Kennedy fans watching the debate and their comment would be, “He’s really slaughtering Nixon.” Then we would all go to another apartment, and the Nixon fans would say, “How do you like the shellacking he gave Kennedy?” And then I realized that each group loved their candidate so that a guy would have to be this blatant – he would have to look into the camera and say: “I am a thief, a crook, do you hear me, I am the worst choice you could ever make for the Presidency!” And even then his following would say, “Now there’s an honest man for you. It takes a big guy to admit that. There’s the kind of guy we need for President.”
Some good news on the battle for freedom of speech in the UK – British Chiropractic Association drop “bogus” libel case against Simon Singh
The BCA have finally dropped their vindictive and misguided attempt to use UK libel law to attack a well-respected science writer, Simon Singh. This follows a refreshingly sensible ruling from the Court of Appeal in which the judges made it clear that the libel courts were no place for trying to settle a scientific debate.
If we’re lucky, this could help to deter at least the most extreme abuses by cranks, quacks, and peddlers of corporate pseudo-science who seek to silence their critics through threats of legal action.
Simon Singh has done a huge service to the many British writers and bloggers who have been threatened by quacks and charlatans – and also to the British wider public, who depend on the freedom of the press (including scientific journals) to ensure that bogus and flawed medical claims are properly scrutinised.
Are you, like me, a nerd? Do you care about nerdy things like science and rationality? Are you wondering, ahead of the 2010 general election, which parties and candidates also care about basing policy on evidence, rather than media scaremongering, opinionated ignorance and/or kneejerk populism? If the answer is yes to all of the above, I would like to point you towards Skeptical-Voter.org.
Because it’s true what they say – this is going to be Britain’s first digital election. But not, you suspect, in the way that the parties might think, or hope. For every vote swayed by WebCameron or the Labour Party’s official Facebook page, there will be thousands who change their mind because of the faster spread of information that the internet allows.
Skeptical Voter is a tool, similar in broad intent if not design to our own Vote Match, that allows voters to find out which parties and candidates match their views on rationalist topics. Worry that your MP wants creationism taught alongside evolutionary theory in schools, or to give Sharia legal status in the UK? Maybe you think homeopathy (I know I go on about it) should be subject to the same standards of scientific rigour as other NHS treatments, and want to know which candidate agrees with you. As the Bad Science blogger and Guardian writer Ben Goldacre put it in a typically acid Tweet, “Does your MP seriously believe in fairies and magic beans?”
Three weeks before a General Election, Parliament refuses to disclose details of which MPs are being probed by standards watchdog
Less than a month before a General Election, you are not entitled to know whether the MP seeking your vote on May 6th is currently under investigation for corruption.
On March 25th I made a Freedom Of Information Act request to the Parliamentary standards watchdog, asking:
a) How many MPs are currently under investigation for suspected breaches of the rules (this could be anything from failing to disclose a second job to taking cash from lobbyists)
b) The names of any MPs currently under investigation.
It seemed to me that in the run-up to the General Election, it was important that the public should be aware which of the MPs currently seeking their votes are at the same time being investigated for dodgy dealings.
Given the well-publicised complicity of the House of Commons authorities in the abuse of Parliamentary expenses by MPs – and their role in the subsequent cover-up – along with the cagey and defensive attitude of the person I spoke to when I phoned the Parliamentary Standards Office a few weeks ago, I was expecting a fair bit of obstruction and evasion. They haven’t let me down.
Today I got an email from Bob Castle, who carries the impressive job title of “Head of Information Rights and Security” at the House of Commons.
According to Mr Castle,
The number of inquiries under way as at 31 March 2010 is information that will be included in the Commissioner’s Annual Report for 2009-10, which is expected to be published in the early summer. It is therefore exempt from publication under s22 of the Freedom of Information Act (information intended for future publication).
Conveniently for those MPs under investigation (and for all we know this could be all 646 of them), “early summer” in this context almost certainly means after the General Election on May 6th. Last year’s annual report on MP abuses was published on 29th June 2009, the previous one on 17th July 2008, and the one before that on 25th October 2007.
Bob Castle goes on to say that:
While there is a public interest in providing access to information such as that covered by your request, this interest is being met by regular publications of information about number of complaints received.
This means, as far as I can tell, that in the opinion of the Commons bureaucrats, a 4o-page report published just once a year tells us, the public, all we deserve to know about the investigations being carried out by the body whose job it is to stamp our corruption by our elected representatives.
It would surely not cost the Parliamentary authorities very much simply to disclose the number of MPs currently under investigation. As a commenter on this article helpfully points out, releasing that information would almost certainly have taken less time than typing out their lengthy excuse for not doing so.
We are also not allowed to know the names of any of the MPs under investigation, as this would apparently infringe the “priveleges of Parliament”.
What this is really about is an attitude. Despite being paid out of the taxes we earn, Bob Castle certainly does not seem to be behaving like someone who believes he is actually accountable to the British public. More than any of the details in this particular case, it’s that attitude that seems most worrying, because it seems to show that the same mindset that allowed the expenses to scandal to happen is very much alive and well in Westminster.
While many of our most corrupt and tainted MPs are stepping down at the next election, and while many others will be fired on May 6th when the voters have their say, Bob Castle and his unelected colleagues will all still be there on May 7th, doing, presumably, what they’ve always done.
As it turns out, Castle played a starring role in the expenses cover-up:
…the preliminary decision in favour of detailed [expenses] disclosure was made by [information commissioner] Mr Thomas.
Signed by Graham Smith, the deputy information commissioner, and dated October 2, 2006, it stated:
“The Commissioner requires that the House of Commons shall provide the complainant with the requested information with the following redactions made. “
The redactions included identification of any third parties e.g. traders; personal and third party addresses; and details of bank accounts and mortgages.
A leaked email from Bob Castle, a data protection and FOI officer at the Commons, sent to Nicole Duncan at the commissioner’s office, protested that the wording of the decision was “inaccurate and unfair”.
Further leaked emails show Ms Duncan continually tried to extract information about the expenses claims of the named MPs.
However, in November 2006, Ms Duncan emailed Mr Castle to “confirm that for the purposes of the [final] Decision Notice in this case we will not be reproducing the exact details of what information the House holds in relation to each of the MPs.”
A reply from Mr Castle at the Commons stated that “the House considered that it would be a breach of the fairness provisions of the first data protection principle to provide any personal data relating to an individual MP’s claims including information as to whether part of their allowances claim is in respect of mortgage or rental payments”.
He added that “until the case is finally determined” the Commons believed it was “released from its obligations” under key sections of the FOI Act.
I’ve appealed this latest FOI refusal, but conveniently, again, for the MPs under investigation, given the timescales involved for FOI appeals, it’s inconceivable that any kind of ruling would be made this side of the General Election.
My personal view is that clearing out the corrupt MPs will not be enough (although it is a very good start). We need a wholesale clear-out of the officials who, for so long, have been doing such a lamentable job of protecting the integrity of our Parliamentary system.
The exact questions I asked were:
I would like to know:
1) The number of MPs currently under investigation by the Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards.
2) The names of any MPs currently under investigation by the Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards.
And here are the exemptions cited in full by Bob Castle:
The Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards is inquiring into these matters under the procedures set out in Standing Order No 150. The number of inquiries under way as at 31 March 2010 is information that will be included in the Commissioner’s Annual Report for 2009-10, which is expected to be published in the early summer. It is therefore exempt from publication under s22 of the Freedom of Information Act (information intended for future publication). While there is a public interest in providing access to information such as that covered by your request, this interest is being met by regular publications of information about number of complaints received. Therefore, the balance of the public interest rests with maintaining the exemption while this information is being prepared and finalised for routine publication.
The procedure approved by the Committee under SO No 150 does not currently provide for the disclosure of the remaining information requested (a list of the names of MPs under inquiry). As this procedure has been approved by the Committee in accordance with the Standing Order, the exemption under s34 is necessary to avoid infringing the privileges of Parliament, which include the rights of each Committee to interpret its own orders of reference. I must therefore refuse your request.
1. From Dr Evan Harris MP (via Twitter), outside the Royal Courts of Justice:
“The judgment is simon…. Wins!”
2. Further updates from blogger and libel reform champion JackofKent.
3. Further background on the case here.
4. Via Index on Censorship – photo of Simon Singh speaking immediately after the ruling.
5. Via James o’ Malley. Audio of Simon Singh and his lawyer speaking about the case immediately after the ruling – link here.
7. The British Chiropractic Association have reportedly issued a statement responding to the ruling…
10. Lay Science publishes statement from the BCA
More to follow…