Thursday 18 July 2013

On the balance of power between citizens and government

The balance of power between citizens and government is constantly shifting. In recent decades it has shifted by and large in favour of the state. New means of surveillance have made it easier to keep an eye on us, and new mechanisms for maintaining secrecy, primarily privatisation, have enabled them to keep secrets from us.

In both cases the primary factor involved in surveillance has been the enormous increase in the amount of data available. This creates problems as much as solutions. While I am wholly against any extension of powers of surveillance, and certainly not the catch all type that Theresa May seems to be so fond of, I am quite sanguine about the results if she did get those powers. As has been said already (I forget by whom) you don't help the search for the needle by increasing the size of the haystack. I was told recently by a colleague just returned from China that Chinese people use the Chinese social media service Weibo with relative freedom, despite knowing that every transaction is recorded. It processes some 15 billion messages a day, and they reckon even the Chinese state would have trouble systematically processing that lot. That does not mean that I have any interest in letting a politician get their hands on any of that kind of power back here. It wastes time and money; takes the eye of the security and police services off what they should be doing - intelligence led work - and opens the door to a myriad forms of corruption and ways of making mistakes.

From the other side there is just as much of a problem. Governments do a lot more than they used to, and the documentation they produce is much more voluminous and often incomprehensible (sometimes deliberately so). The range of activities is vast, and any kind of scrutiny involves people being very up to date and very expert in their fields. Scrutiny only works of course if what you need to see is actually available to be seen. Much that ought to be visible remains invisible. The government and the public play a game of nerves and patience over use of freedom of information provisions. One of the latest examples, but only one of many is the refusal by the Department of Work and Pensions to release figures of those who have died in the immediate aftermath of a Work Capability Assessment. They don't collect the figures any more, they say, so responding to an FOI request would be too expensive. That's government speak for "The figures are too embarrassing".

A great deal of public sector work is now done by private companies, so when the government's defences against FOI fail, the catch all defence of commercial confidentiality is brought into play very often to vitiate attempts to shed light on what is going on.  And given the scale and extent of private involvement in public sector work, there is a lot that is being kept hidden. At the moment the defence of commercial confidentiality is legal. There is no provision in law to overcome it. But it is not valid. Private companies are not spending the government's money. They are spending mine and yours. As the funders of whatever activity is going on, you and I have the right to know how our money is being spent. That level of transparency would do a great deal to make sure that our money is being properly spent and would help to prevent both corruption and mistakes. G4S's Olympic security fiasco; A4E's serial history of fiddling; systematic overcharging for parole supervision; ATOS's poisonous practices with regard to the disabled people they allegedly assess - all these would be under much greater scrutiny than they are now.

Commercial confidentiality as an excuse is a figleaf. It doesn't hide anything from a company's competitors. They all know broadly, and often in precise detail, what their competitiors charge, what their costs are, and where they make their money. They're in the same business; they work under the same regulations; they work for the same customers. It's called isomorphism. But the point of commercial confidentiality, as used by the government, is simply and only to prevent public oversight of their own doings, and those of the companies who they contract on our behalf.

This should not be the case. This is why I have signed the petition to make private providers of public services subject to the Freedom of Information Act. And I encourage you to sign it too. Current contracts will not be affected. But any future provider will take up government contracts in the knowledge that everything to do with that contract will be subject to public scrutiny. If they prefer to keep their workings secret, then they will not be awarded government contracts, and we, the public, will be free to draw our own conclusions as to the reasons why they choose to stay secret.

I am quite sure that this petition will get nowhere in this Parliament. The Conservatives would not allow it. But I very much hope that it forms part of the next Liberal Democrat manifesto, together with a strengthening of the FOI Act to stop government departments raising the cost bar for seekers of information to excessive levels, and citing their own costs too often as excuses for not providing information.

You really couldn't make this up. Commercial confidentiality now officially allows big companies to get away with crime: "The Serious Organised Crime Agency has refused to disclose the names of blue-chip companies who commissioned corrupt private investigators who broke the law because revealing them would damage the firms’ commercial interests, The Independent has learnt."