In my post yesterday I discussed how Alan Duncan was instrumental in stopping the nod and wink deal been organised by the backbenchers with Labour to keep expenses secret. Today he has gone head to head with Harriet Harman and had this to say about the matter of disclosure:
“May I thank the Leader of the House for generously taking so many interventions and for the thoroughness with which she has treated this topic? That is appreciated on both sides of the House. May I also express my gratitude for her earlier comments about my dress sense, my watch, my cufflinks and, not least, my interest in oil? They are especially appreciated coming from such a gentle flower of the aristocracy who has so aggressively embraced the working class.
Today will, I hope, represent a major step forward in everything that the House needs to do on the declaration of its expenses. The whole issue has given Parliament a wretchedly bad name for far too long, and there are deep wounds that need to be healed if we are to be seen as a sensible, honest, working institution by anyone in this country. We do not want to have a state of permanent war either across the Floor of the House or between this House and the press and public. Our reputation must be raised and we can achieve that only by being open and honest.
The other vexed issue accompanying the development of our allowances has been the implementation of freedom of information legislation. We have witnessed a long, slow train crash between what we do and what the Freedom of Information Act 2000 requires, which we have been unable so far to resolve. In the eyes of the public, that appears to be a requirement that we have always wanted to escape. The assumption of the Freedom of Information Act is that there should always be disclosure. However, the other side of the disclosure equation is that if such disclosure collides with data protection it may not be necessary. In the Freedom of Information Act, as it applies to this House or to anyone else, there is therefore always a permanent tension between openness and privacy. There are always exceptions in other fields on what is published. We can all accept that when there is a legitimate matter of security and the safety of the individual, and the revelation of certain details that could be taken wrongly and abused by other people, privacy is very important.
The other side of the equation, which affects us uniquely, is the fact that when it comes to the need to reveal information we are at the top of the scrutiny pyramid. We are elected. We choose that, and through election we become permanently in the public gaze. Even High Court judges are not quite in the same category, nor even permanent secretaries, and certainly not middle-ranking— [ Interruption. ] I shall set the BBC to one side for the moment. Middle-ranking civil servants are certainly never expected to be in the public gaze and they are just that—civil servants. We must accept that we are the people who are most expected to come clean about how we spend the allowances that are granted to us. I think that we have been very slow to accept that that scrutiny is legitimate and that we are in an almost unique category.
We need to move on and make this place work better, and to make people realise that this is an honest Parliament. It is probably more honest than any other that I know in the world, and it is here to serve people. People would benefit from respecting it—they may even want to be elected to it—and from appreciating what we all try to do for our constituents. That would enhance our democracy instead of causing it to decay.”
This is just the sort of approach the party should be taking in matters of transparency, if we are to make any headway in cleaning up parliament and rebuilding people’s confidence in politicians. Alan seemed to be really enjoying himself, he through himself into the role with gusto and seemed to relish sparing with Harman. You could hardly believe that he was effectively demoted to his new position this week, he seemed more like the cat that got the cream.