The indiscretion of Vince Cable

Should constituency surgeries always be confidential?

Today the Daily Telegraph publishes further reports of secretly recorded conversations with Liberal Democrat MPs. These follow yesterday's disclosures of Vince Cable's ill-considered comments recorded at his constituency surgery. The revelations are certainly interesting, but are such clandestine tactics in the public interest?

In the case of Vince Cable's remark that he had declared "war on Murdoch", there is arguably a public interest. It is unacceptable for a decision-maker with public law duties (or "quasi-judicial" powers, as old-fashioned lawyers would call them) to say such a thing of any party that could possibly be affected adversely by his or her decision. In my view, the quashing of such a decision would be a mere legal formality.

But the Daily Telegraph did not initially publish that particular remark, and it is not clear that it ever intended to do so. Instead, it was first published by the BBC in a scoop. This reluctance on the part of the Daily Telegraph may be explained by an understandable wish not to help a commercial competitor, though there could be other, less cynical explanations. Moreover, to catch the Business Secretary saying such a thing was not, in fact, the intention of the undercover reporters: it was an unexpected slip. Rather, the intention seems to have been to capture what Liberal Democrats were "really saying" about the coalition.

If so, there are easier ways. For example, the Daily Telegraph's lobby correspondents routinely hear what Liberal Democrat MPs are "really saying" about the coalition. But because these conversations are conducted on lobby terms, any criticisms will not be attributed to the MP in question. In this way, it would appear that the only mistake made by the Lib Dem MPs in this affair is to talk frankly to someone who appeared to be a constituent (whom the MP actually represents), rather than speak directly to a Daily Telegraph lobby correspondent. The exercise carried out by the Telegraph's undercover reporters would not be required if it were not for the conventions of non-attributed lobby briefings, in which the newspaper itself connives.

As a general rule, the constituency surgery of an MP should not be the place to make secret recordings. That said, the confidentiality of constituency surgeries exists to protect the constituent, not the MP (just as legal professional privilege exists to protect the client, and not the lawyer). As such, it is open for any constituent (real or supposed) to disclose what is said by an MP. On this basis, the Daily Telegraph's secret recordings do not so far breach any grand political or legal principle.

However, there is some cause for concern. One suspects that the first use of interceptions of voicemails by tabloid reporters had a solid public-interest basis; but it was quickly realised that such material was a rich seam, to be mined just for trivial stories. Similarly, one hopes that newspapers do not now see constituency surgeries as "fair game". The secret recording of constituents would never be appropriate: there will always be the need for a private space where a constituent can speak candidly to his or her member of parliament.

David Allen Green is a lawyer and writer. He is legal correspondent of the New Statesman and was shortlisted for the Orwell Prize for blogging in 2010.

David Allen Green is legal correspondent of the New Statesman and author of the Jack of Kent blog.

His legal journalism has included popularising the Simon Singh libel case and discrediting the Julian Assange myths about his extradition case.  His uncovering of the Nightjack email hack by the Times was described as "masterly analysis" by Lord Justice Leveson.

David is also a solicitor and was successful in the "Twitterjoketrial" appeal at the High Court.

(Nothing on this blog constitutes legal advice.)

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The rise of the green mayor – Sadiq Khan and the politics of clean energy

At an event at Tate Modern, Sadiq Khan pledged to clean up London's act.

On Thursday night, deep in the bowls of Tate Modern’s turbine hall, London Mayor Sadiq Khan renewed his promise to make the capital a world leader in clean energy and air. Yet his focus was as much on people as power plants – in particular, the need for local authorities to lead where central governments will not.

Khan was there to introduce the screening of a new documentary, From the Ashes, about the demise of the American coal industry. As he noted, Britain continues to battle against the legacy of fossil fuels: “In London today we burn very little coal but we are facing new air pollution challenges brought about for different reasons." 

At a time when the world's leaders are struggling to keep international agreements on climate change afloat, what can mayors do? Khan has pledged to buy only hybrid and zero-emissions buses from next year, and is working towards London becoming a zero carbon city.

Khan has, of course, also gained heroic status for being a bête noire of climate-change-denier-in-chief Donald Trump. On the US president's withdrawal from the Paris Agreement, Khan quipped: “If only he had withdrawn from Twitter.” He had more favourable things to say about the former mayor of New York and climate change activist Michael Bloomberg, who Khan said hailed from “the second greatest city in the world.”

Yet behind his humour was a serious point. Local authorities are having to pick up where both countries' central governments are leaving a void – in improving our air and supporting renewable technology and jobs. Most concerning of all, perhaps, is the way that interest groups representing business are slashing away at the regulations which protect public health, and claiming it as a virtue.

In the UK, documents leaked to Greenpeace’s energy desk show that a government-backed initiative considered proposals for reducing EU rules on fire-safety on the very day of the Grenfell Tower fire. The director of this Red Tape Initiative, Nick Tyrone, told the Guardian that these proposals were rejected. Yet government attempts to water down other EU regulations, such as the energy efficiency directive, still stand.

In America, this blame-game is even more highly charged. Republicans have sworn to replace what they describe as Obama’s “war on coal” with a war on regulation. “I am taking historic steps to lift the restrictions on American energy, to reverse government intrusion, and to cancel job-killing regulations,” Trump announced in March. While he has vowed “to promote clean air and clear water,” he has almost simultaneously signed an order to unravel the Clean Water Rule.

This rhetoric is hurting the very people it claims to protect: miners. From the Ashes shows the many ways that the industry harms wider public health, from water contamination, to air pollution. It also makes a strong case that the American coal industry is in terminal decline, regardless of possibile interventions from government or carbon capture.

Charities like Bloomberg can only do so much to pick up the pieces. The foundation, which helped fund the film, now not only helps support job training programs in coal communities after the Trump administration pulled their funding, but in recent weeks it also promised $15m to UN efforts to tackle climate change – again to help cover Trump's withdrawal from Paris Agreement. “I'm a bit worried about how many cards we're going to have to keep adding to the end of the film”, joked Antha Williams, a Bloomberg representative at the screening, with gallows humour.

Hope also lies with local governments and mayors. The publication of the mayor’s own environment strategy is coming “soon”. Speaking in panel discussion after the film, his deputy mayor for environment and energy, Shirley Rodrigues, described the move to a cleaner future as "an inevitable transition".

Confronting the troubled legacies of our fossil fuel past will not be easy. "We have our own experiences here of our coal mining communities being devastated by the closure of their mines," said Khan. But clean air begins with clean politics; maintaining old ways at the price of health is not one any government must pay. 

'From The Ashes' will premiere on National Geograhpic in the United Kingdom at 9pm on Tuesday, June 27th.

India Bourke is an environment writer and editorial assistant at the New Statesman.

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