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Thursday, 18 October 2012

The slow march of sunlight: 240 years of Parliamentary transparency

1771: A man stands in a darkened corner of the gallery making notes by what light spilled in his direction from the few lanterns dotted around this the darker end of the chamber where the public were, in theory at least, allowed to observe debates.

The MPs below are debating Brass Crosby, the Lord Mayor of London.  The arguments are well rehearsed.   Parliament would cease to function should every word spoken appear under the microscope of public scrutiny. Members would refrain from honest debate for fear of what their constituents might conclude should a few rash words be quoted out of context, opting instead to act like showmen playing to the journals.  And how could the journalists be regulated to ensure their accounts remained unbiased?

Despite rowdy oppostion, Wilke's motion carried in the early hours.  The government was defeated not by tonight's debate but by the judiciary, who had previously refused to try Crosby for treason.  His crime? Refusing to punish another man, Miller, for publishing several accounts of proceedings in the House.


Nearly forty years later a pioneer in Parliamentary transparency did find himself in prison, but his crime was not related to the transcripts of debates he had published in his journal The Political Register over the previous eight years.

William Cobbett had used his journal to object to inhumane treatment of local militia by forces sworn to Hanover, and this threatened the union between the House of Hanover and Great Britain.  Convicted of treasonous libel, Cobbett spent the next two years in a notorious prison of the era.

Cobbett continued a campaign for Parliamentary reform until his death in 1835, being charged at least twice more with libel.  He stood against bribery and corruption in politics, for the removal of 'rotten' boroughs where the tiny electorate could easily be bought, and died in 1835 a Member of Parliament after finally winning an election in 1832.


One hundred and eighty years later many of the arguments surfacing in the decades leading up to the Great Reform Act of 1832 are still playing out today.

Of course television cameras now supplement Parliament's official written record Hansard, which still bears the name of Thomas Curson Hansard, a printer who first extended the circulation of Cobbett's debates before taking over publication entirely in 1812.

But Parliament is a body operating independently of Government and daylight has been slow to find its way into the many ministries and quangos of Whitehall and beyond.

Finland introduced transparency legislation in 1951. US citizens got Freedom of Information in 1966.  France formalised a constitutional right to access public documents in the seventies and Australia introduced legislation in the early eighties.

Citizens of the United Kingdom had to wait till the onset of the third millennium, and even then its powers didn't come into effect until 2005.


British citizens exercising their democratic right to request information face a myriad of problems.  Delays and outright refusals under one of many broad exceptions are common.

Public interest tests are highly subjective and make it relatively painless for officials to hide embarrassing detail with very few consequences.

Should a refusal be overturned on appeal the Government may well appeal to a higher authority, delaying publication of said embarrassing detail for a couple of years or longer, by which time the news agenda and perhaps the embarrassed official has moved on.

MPs and ministers are quick to brief, strictly off the record, of course, how damaging too much transparency can be.  How costly freedom of information is.  What little benefit comes from allowing the unwashed hordes to pore over every meeting minute and other minutiae of officialdom.


Many of the arguments against transparency are at least two hundred and fifty years old and, if not disproved, now widely disputed.

Yet local councils are preventing live video transcripts of official proceedings, lobbyists responding to formal consultations can request not to have their responses published, commercial confidence is a barrier to those wishing to investigate whether government departments get value for money when e.g. deploying 'superfast' broadband in rural areas, and revealing the names of MPs landlords is prejudicial to their safety.

(But, inconveniently, also prejudicial to anyone trying to investigate whether MPs might be letting the houses they own out to each other in order to inflate their expenses claims.)

Transparency is a balance between the public's right to know and the government's right not to have to justify the decisions it makes on our behalf.


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