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21 October 2002

Promises, promises

An audit of new Labour's record reveals a democratic deficit at the heart of government

By Stuart Weir

Is Tony Blair a democrat? The question may seem absurd. He is, after all, the Prime Minister who promised open and honest government, sharing power and information with the public. His government has enacted devolution, the Human Rights Act, freedom of information and reform of party political funding.

But the question persists. His most urgent task in 1997 was to restore confidence in a political structure that gave overweening power to the centre – both to strong premiers such as Margaret Thatcher and to apparently weak ones such as John Major. Yet despite their pledges, Blair and his ministers have taken care to preserve what Jack Straw likes to call “executive democracy”. They have taken to their huge and almost unfettered powers like pigs to shit.

So, can Blair claim the title of democrat? Democratic Audit at Essex University has just subjected his government’s record over five years to a series of tests of its democracy, which have uncovered a Jekyll and Hyde government that is only inconsistently true to its modernising mantras. Britain turns out to be in breach of its international commitments to political and social rights, and even economic and social rights. The royal prerogative is still in place and still allows Tony Blair to order the bombing or invasion of Iraq (or any other country), and to leave civil servants in charge of Britain’s unreformed role in opaque international institutions like Nato, the IMF and the World Bank.

New Labour wrote off old Labour as obsolete. But both its early modern reforms – devolution and the Human Rights Act – were inherited from old Labour. Other reforms have been compromised by calculations of executive and party advantage, while pre-1997 pledges have been hollowed out or abandoned.

Take open government. In 1996, as Sir Richard Scott was making access to official information the centrepiece of his arms to Iraq report, Blair renewed his pledge to end “obsessive and unnecessary secrecy”.

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“Information is power,” he declared, “. . . does the government regard people’s involvement in politics as being restricted to periodic elections? Or, does it regard itself as in some sense in a genuine partnership with people?”

The Freedom of Information Act 2000, passed into law in November 2000, fails Blair’s own test for democratic rule. Campaigners for open government have soft-pedalled their criticisms in the hope of opening it up in practice. But Democratic Audit reveals just how restrictive it is. The act does, for the first time, introduce a statutory right to information, but it is barely more open than Major’s code of practice for official information already in force in 1997.

The Blair act specifies no fewer than 36 strict exceptions to public access to offi-cial information: 25 exclude whole classes of documents, and for ten of these the prohibition on disclosure is “absolute”. Otherwise, the act allows ministers or officials to apply public interest or harm tests to decide whether information may be released or not. Their opinions as to what is in the public interest are thus given legal weight; they are judges in their own cause. People may appeal against refusal to the information commissioner. But ministers and officials can exercise an executive veto to override the commissioner’s decision to disclose information against the government’s wishes. More than 300 other acts, orders and statutory instruments further prohibit the disclosure of official information.

The act will cast a net of secrecy over government policy-making and policy disasters, such as the BSE tragedy; PFI and other private deals in the public sector; bungled police investigations; inquiries into deaths in custody; international deals, such as the Ilisu Dam; and much else. And once information is withheld, most of it is lost. Only a small amount goes into the archives for release 30 years or more later. Most of it goes into the shredder.

Comparison with modern freedom of information regimes elsewhere shows the exceptional extent of exemptions under the UK act and the weakness of the act’s prejudice and harm tests. But the most revealing comparison is with practice in the US. There, exemptions from disclosure are permissive rather than mandatory, and are subject to a justifiable test of harm on a case by case basis.

The firewall around official information has become especially significant under new Labour. For it is the power of ministers, officials and special advisers to control the disclosure of official information that gives them the freedom to promote and spin their policies and actions safe in the knowledge that MPs, the public and the media are denied knowledge that could put their record in perspective. Far from sharing information, Blair and his ministers keep crucial information secret – the better to manipulate their public dialogue and image.

As the current debate over war against Iraq illustrates, governments still fear the power of public opinion or a wounding split in their own party. Prevaricate, spin, delay and manoeuvre as they will, Blair, Gordon Brown and their colleagues cannot evade the final verdict of the people. But the force of public opinion is rarely focused, and one consequence of the Blair regime has been a diminishing faith and interest in government. Meanwhile, we continue to be governed under an almost unshiftable single-party regime.

Professor Stuart Weir is director of Democratic Audit, the Human Rights Centre, University of Essex. He is one of the authors of the centre’s latest audit, Democracy Under Blair: a democratic audit of the United Kingdom, published next month by Politico’s

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