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.)

Show Hide image

Working class girls don't threaten our universities, they enrich them

Widening participation is good for universities because it enables them to recruit the students who have the very highest potential, regardless of their personal circumstances.

British universities are under threat. People working in higher education have known this for a while. But it isn’t funding cuts, or high fees, or casualisation, or Prevent, or even ‘safe spaces’, that threaten universities the most. No – it’s a working class girl with a UCAS form and a library card.

Earlier this month, the Telegraph reported that ‘experts’ think universities are slipping down the international league tables because they are forced to recruit ‘diverse’ or ‘disadvantaged’ students. When I read Chris Patten’s comments, a couple of weeks later, that quotas for students from non-traditional backgrounds would lead to ‘lower standards’, it confirmed what I had always known: there are some people who think that people like me just don’t belong in higher education.

When I applied for university, I was a free school meals student at a sixth form at my local comprehensive school. When my university admitted me to study history as an undergraduate, they did so knowing that I wasn’t from a private school, or even a selective school; I wasn’t following my father or grandfather into the ‘family college’ (as I once heard someone describe Balliol). I knew I was different when I arrived: my family had never taken a foreign holiday or bought a new car, and it was sometimes a struggle to buy food or pay bills. This hadn’t marked me out as especially different at home in rural Lincolnshire, but it did at university in London. I remember talking about family members having been on the dole in a seminar about Thatcherism, and being looked at with unconcealed fascination, by students who had never met anybody like me.

The excellent teaching and personal support I got as an undergraduate meant that I never really felt like I didn’t belong. I benefited directly from widening participation initiatives, which were in their infancy when I was an undergraduate; for example, I received a series of small grants from my department to help to support me financially while I studied. When I returned to UCL to complete my PhD (which I was only able to do because both my MSc and PhD were fully funded), I worked for several years as part of the widening participation and outreach team. We brought able students from non-traditional backgrounds to UCL to give them a taste of university life and to encourage them to pursue a future in higher education. Working on these Saturday schools and summer schools was the most rewarding teaching that I did during my PhD.

Because, the thing is, these students – ‘diverse’ students, ‘disadvantaged’ students, students from ‘non-traditional backgrounds’ – can be some of the most rewarding to teach. They are certainly able to hold their own against the more ‘traditional’ intake of British elite universities. In fact, research has demonstrated that students from state schools actually outperform their peers from private schools who were admitted to university with the same A-levels.

This isn’t surprising, really: if you had to learn to motivate yourself throughout your GCSEs and A-levels because your teachers had to focus on keeping order in a disruptive classroom, if you had to carve out space on a kitchen table or in a public library to do your homework because you don’t have your own room or your own computer , if your grades are the result not of private tutoring but of dedicated and diligent independent work - then you are likely to be an excellent undergraduate student, capable of time-management, self-motivation, hard graft. If you have managed to navigate the UCAS admissions process yourself, because your parents didn’t go to university and don’t know how to help you, or because your school only sends a few students on to do degrees every year, you are probably going to be dedicated to making the most of what you have achieved.

Everybody should have access to higher education, regardless of background or upbringing (and, it should go without saying, regardless of race, ethnicity or gender). But this isn’t just an issue of fairness – these ‘non-traditional’ students are good for universities, too.  When I read that recruiting “disadvantaged and ethnic minority students” was “distracting [universities] from research and high-calibre teaching”, I actually laughed. Widening participation is good for universities because it enables them to recruit the students who have the very highest potential, regardless of their personal circumstances. But more than this – it creates an environment where the very best research and teaching can be carried out.

I teach modern British history. I work on class difference, on post-imperial migration, on ideas about inequality and identity and ‘British values’ and what it means to live in Britain today. I can’t do that effectively if all of my students and all of my colleagues come from the same narrow group. In my teaching, I hope I make it easier for all of my students to celebrate their own diverse and non-traditional backgrounds, whatever they may be. Because academia needs diversity. If we are going to produce work that is relevant and exciting and interesting we need a plurality of voices, not the same old pale-male-stale viewpoints. Universities aren’t being threatened by these students – they are being enriched. 

Charlotte Riley is a lecturer in 20th Century British History at the University of Southampton