“No, Mr Cameron, we do not trust you” – Tom Watson’s full speech on government transparency

Tom Watson

Throughout my 14 years as an MP I have grappled with notions of privacy and transparency, trust and accountability.

We don’t need to look much further than previous police inquiries – stretching back decades and reaching into every corner of our country to see institutional failure.

Take Hillsborough and the Daniel Morgan murder inquiry, where state agencies were corrupted.

Or the Data Retention Investigatory Powers Act, where power was given to state agencies without adequate safeguards.

I grew up choosing to believe that our State – our welfare state as we proudly teach our children – was a flawed but inherently benevolent organism.

My life in politics has taught me – relatively late, actually – that the flaws run deeper than I realised.

Yet in the disruption of the digital age, we will be grappling with how institutions are held to account for many more years. The organism changes in ways we could never have imagined. And so its flaws change too, and some of them are magnified.

If we care about how citizens feel about their government we must understand that trust can be lost in an instant, whereas it can take an age to rebuild.

The relationships between trust and secrecy, transparency and accountability need to be mapped out. And publicly so. Not in a private process of mandarins and politicians.

We need to paint this map boldly on our walls, in bright colours so that everyone can see where power lies, and where accountability should follow.

I believe transparency is the key to reforming institutions that have failed the public, and to keeping public support for successful institutions.

Transparency as a concept has been much more rigorously explored elsewhere: in the USA and Sweden, for instance, and more recently by the EU.

What becomes clear from studying these different cultures is that the practice of transparency is as much a set of behaviours of institutions and officials, and assumptions about how citizens need to be involved in those institutions, as it is a set of rules on information and data.

The notions of secrecy and trust, and transparency and accountability and their inter-relationship also need to be understood, and they are often confused.

For government institutions transparency leads to accountability, whereas trust, over the years, becomes the enemy of truth.

A citizenry which trusts the basic honesty and good intentions of state institutions is what politicians want. It makes their lives easy. But it isn’t what’s best for our democracy.

A healthy scepticism, which comes naturally to the 21st century citizen-consumer, is what we should legislate for: a public which doesn’t need to trust us, because it can see what we’re doing.

Which, over time of course, ends up building trust. That is the paradox of transparency and trust.

Where trust has been lost, more transparency will lead to more accountability, which will help institutions, over time, to regain trust by showing that they are trustworthy. Whereas institutions which try to build trust through secrecy – as they surprisingly often do – will eventually fail.

The Cameronian offer: “Just leave it to us – trust us to sort it out even though we let you down last time” – that won’t cut it any more.

The offer needs to be: every aspect of what we do in your name is open to scrutiny.

There is nothing to hide.

We understand that if we don’t want you to know about it, we shouldn’t be doing it.

As Thomas Jefferson said, “It is error alone which needs the support of government. Truth can stand by itself.”

This is a hard thing for politicians to accept, but it’s important that we do. It challenges the core axiom that the government knows best, the ingrained but indefensible belief that sometimes we need to do things which are in people’s interest but of which they might not approve, so we’d better not tell them. In the age of transparency, such thinking is obsolete.

Only in the most exceptional circumstances should state actions, from the biggest to the very tiniest thing, be “protected” from public scrutiny.

This is the only way forward.

A future Labour Government must provide citizens access to, and influence on, policy-making processes at every level.

This requires not just access to information, but an explanation of the context and, indeed, the meaning of the information.

A working definition of what transparent processes look like isn’t hard to come up with:

· Easy access to information

· Detailed technical publications

· Clarity of language

· Authenticity, so that words and deeds correspond

· Well defined open processes with clear roles and responsibilities

· Opportunities for all interested parties to participate in the decision making process

There’s doubtless more one could add, but I think that’s a fair starter for ten.

And by itself, if we actually did that, it would constitute a revolution in government behaviour.

What governments currently do – and Labour governments did it too – is answer questions very specifically and narrowly, often hoping to bury the meaning in an obfuscatory sea of information.

One fact alone may be a devastating thing, haunting and pursuing the powerful transgressor; whereas laid alongside a million others, it simply disappears.

So that is what governments do.

Yesterday, the government had an event that has being described as ‘David Cameron’s take out the trash day’.

By publishing 36 written ministerial statements and 424 government documents in one day, they hoped that hard pressed lobby journalists would miss the revelation that three quarters of those affected by bedroom tax have cut back on food according to the DWP, that there has been a 45% rise in the number of homeless families living in emergency B&Bs.

And that the government has lost contact with 10,000 asylum seekers.

Yet the Tories in their pursuit of secrecy are not just attempting to blind us with massive information. They’re doing it the old-fashioned way and actually trying to turn off the lights; systematically making it harder for people to engage with policy making, retreating into a darker and more secretive place.

‘Trust me’, David Cameron will say, we know best. Leave us to govern from our shaded Whitehall warrens, inside which you citizens will never see.

‘Trust Me’ might just be the most manipulative thing a politician can say.

It means leave me alone in secret to operate without proper challenge.

It leads to bad policy, and the inevitable further erosion of trust in government.

It is said that over time, organisations and institutions start to reflect the personalities of the people that lead them, for good and for ill.

It’s no different with this Government.

David Cameron may have some good qualities. But a willingness to listen to colleagues and engage constructively and patiently with his front bench team aren’t among them.

Put simply, the Prime Minister doesn’t like being challenged.

He reacts badly when confronted with an opposing point of view.

His instinct is that his own opinion must always prevail, and that instinct has slowly ossified over the years so that it now forms the basis of a rigid and irreversible code of behaviour.

That’s what can happen when you’ve been the boss for so long.

That might not matter if David Cameron was running an investment bank or a financial PR company.

But that character trait is reflected in the administration this Prime Minister leads.

And it is amplified by the machinery of Government.

That’s why we are stuck with a fundamentally illiberal Government that railroads proposals through Parliament without debate and seeks to limit scrutiny whenever and wherever possible.

So it is the Prime Minister’s mind-set that helps to explain why the FOI Act is regarded as an irritant and the Human Rights Act is viewed as nothing but an inconvenience.

Under that mind set, squeezing the finances of the political parties who oppose you becomes not just acceptable but desirable.

So Labour must say ‘No, Mr Cameron, we do not trust you. You must show us what is happening. Turn the lights up, not off.’

And we must say it loudly, on behalf of the silent majority.

We believe that a more open government will be a better government, with more robust policy making.

The Tories used to talk up transparency, because it made them seem radical and modern.

The 2010 Coalition agreement promised to ‘throw open the doors of public bodies, to enable the public to hold politicians and public bodies to account’.

This included a commitment to ‘extend the scope of the Freedom of Information Act to provide greater transparency’.

It would be funny if it wasn’t so serious.

Because now that he has a clear Tory majority, and five years in government under his belt, the Prime Minister is ‘reviewing’ the Freedom of Information Act with a view to making it significantly weaker, not stronger at all.

As opposition leader he famously said ‘Sunlight is the best disinfectant’ and promised the Tories would ‘bring the operation of Government out into the open’. As Prime Minister he is methodically closing all the doors and the shutters, drawing the blinds and the curtains, retreating to the shadows at the back of the national farmhouse.

He wants to govern from the gloom in the old fashioned way, without the inconvenience of scrutiny, abandoning any hope of decency or trust.

His response to the crisis in our health service has been to introduce an NHS news blackout.

NHS England has confirmed that the weekly information bulletin, that was due to begin publication last week, will no longer include figures on four hour waits in emergency departments, the number of ambulances queueing outside hospitals, or operations cancelled at the last minute.

He thinks we won’t like what they’re doing, so they’re going to stop telling us about it.

All very Yes Minister. Which was funny of course.

A brilliant comedy.

In real life though – forty years on after a 30 year data revolution – it’s dark. And sad. And unwise.

In opposition Cameron talked up civil liberties too.

As Prime Minister he wants to hand the security services the power to access a raft of personal information, from mobile phones to emails – without judicial oversight.

So the Home Secretary sits at her desk late into the night signing orders that allow the police and others to seize information.

That’s a job judges should do.

And some of their sinister revisions have been more stealthily wrought.

The Ministerial Code, for instance, was quietly rewritten after the election in May to remove references to international law and Britain’s treaty obligations.

The Government insists it was merely ‘tidying up’ the code.

Again, I’d laugh if I wasn’t so angry.

Many lawyers don’t agree it was just “tidying up”.

Nor does Dominic Grieve, the former Attorney-General and Conservative chair of the Intelligence and security committee, who said: ‘It’s impossible to understand why this change has been carried out’ and warned:

‘It sends out a very bad signal. They shouldn’t have done it’.

The Tories don’t care, though.

It’s the arrogance of power at the beginning of their second term; they’re starting to feel untouchable.

The former head of the Government’s legal service was very revealing when he talked about the changes to the code.

It’s worth quoting what he said in a letter to the Guardian.

‘As the Government’s most senior legal official I saw at close hand from 2010 onwards the intense irritation these words caused the PM as he sought to avoid complying with our international legal obligations. Whether the new wording alters the legal obligations of ministers or not, there can be no doubt that they will regard the change as bolstering, in a most satisfying way, their contempt for international law’. You can choose who to believe.

I generally choose to believe the people who ring alarm bells about abuse of power.

Lawyers may disagree on the legal ramifications of the changes to the Ministerial Code.

But no one doubts its political impact.

The language our Government chooses to employ carries huge weight in the world.

When it removes references to the Ministerial obligation to observe international law, the rest of the world takes notice.

It undermines the significance of treaties the UK signed.

Treaties we helped to frame.

The European Convention of Human Rights.

The UN Charter.

The Geneva Convention.

The Paris Climate Treaty.

And you can hardly get a more straightforward expression of the Tory attitude to accountability.

The Ministerial Code used to hold British Ministers accountable to international law.

Cameron hated that.

So he quietly changed this long-standing core text of government, with reference to no one.

Even Margaret Thatcher said that ‘Those who rely on freedom must uphold the rule of law and have a duty and a responsibility to do so and not try to substitute their own system for it.’

He doesn’t look more illiberal than Thatcher, does he? Yet he’s doing things she would never have dreamed of.

The Strathclyde Review of the House of Lords could remove the right of Peers to block secondary legislation.

I recognise the Government is furious about its defeat on tax credits in the upper chamber.

But this is not about tax credits or any of the other issues on which the Lords has disagreed with the Government.

As our excellent leader in the Lords Angela Smith said in her response to the Review: ‘If it was, it would be a massive overreaction. It is far more serious than that’.

Because there is a cynical opportunism at play here. The Tories want to remove the power to block secondary legislation at the very moment they are using it to push through a raft of measures on which the Lords would otherwise have a say, including abolishing maintenance grants for poorer students.

Whereas on English Votes for English Laws, a major constitutional upheaval has been pushed through Parliament with no respect for the long-term ramifications.

There used to be an agreement amongst the parties that each was the custodian of the constitution when in Government.

Major changes that were potentially irreversible should be pursued only with a degree of consensus and cross-party support.

This Government has torn up that agreement. They don’t care.

And the Tories demonstrated a similar disdain for Parliamentary procedure when they shamelessly tried to unseat the Speaker in the final days of the last Parliament, an unedifying episode that was rightly defeated, if only by a narrow margin.

We already have one of the most over-mighty executives in the world.

The Government of the day decides everything about the legislative and Parliamentary programme.

In the vast majority of democracies the powers of the legislative body are clearly defined in the constitution. Here the government’s majority is balanced by very little. 250 years ago, a famous Frenchman wrote:

“The English people believes itself to be free; it is gravely mistaken; it is free only during election of members of parliament; as soon as the members are elected, the people is enslaved….”

That’s perhaps too harsh, but still not without truth. Even now, the government’s majority is a hugely powerful, terribly unsubtle and relentlessly partisan instrument.

This government abuses its power as none has ever done before.

Even Lord Lucas, a Tory peer and former Government Whip said: “‘More power to government, less to parliament’ was not my party’s cry in the Blair/Brown years.”

Labour will look at ways of increasing the power of select committees.

And we will consider further changes to enhance the power of the House of Commons.

My colleague Chris Bryant, one of the most scholarly parliamentarians of his generation believes that MPs should have more power to initiate legislation, without the agreement of the executive.

That would fundamentally change the balance of power in our democracy and we will consult on it over this Parliament.

We know the Tories are no friends of the trade union movement.

But this Government’s attack on unions and the working people they represent is unprecedented.

And it is incoherent.

The Government is currently pushing through secondary legislation – secondary legislation the Lords will be barred from voting on, remember, if the Tories get their way on the Strathclyde Review – that will allow employers to hire agency staff to replace workers who decide as a last resort to withdraw their labour.

No civilised country denies its citizens the right to strike, yet this measure undermines that right.

And companies will have fourteen days to arrange cover because that is the notice period unions will have to give when strike action is agreed.

It goes beyond the political: it’s profoundly illiberal.

The Government wants to ban strikes if less than 50 per cent of those eligible to vote take part.

Nearly half the Cabinet, including Sajid Javid, Iain Duncan Smith, Nicky Morgan and Amber Rudd, would not have been elected if the same rules were applied to them.

Online balloting is apparently out of the question for trade unionists. The Tories say it’s not secure.

But presumably they don’t say that to Zac Goldsmith, who was chosen as the Conservative candidate for London mayor in an online vote.

It’s one law for them and another for us.

And that is the arrogance of power.

We want to see digital democracy in the workplace. That’s why Labour would allow unions to use digital technology to poll their members on industrial action. That’s transparency at work. And let’s not forget that trade union donations to the Labour Party are declared in a way that big business’s support for the Tory party so often isn’t.

The Tories’ attack on the unions is mirrored by an equally aggressive attack on the Labour Party.

The amount of money opposition parties receive was dramatically reduced in George Osborne’s recent financial statement.

He is trying to starve the Labour Party of funding by making it harder for unions to donate and cutting taxpayer funding at the same time.

That’s what they mean by “a political Chancellor”.

And one fact that was squeezed in to those 36 written ministerial statements yesterday was that whilst he is cutting support for opposition parties he has tripled the number of political special advisers in his own department.

As deputy leader of the Labour Party I’m obviously unhappy about it; but I’m not the only one.

The chief executive of the Electoral Reform Society said the plan was “bad news for democracy”.

She pointed out that the UK spends only a tenth of the European average funding parties.

And she said: “Short money is designed to level the playing field and ensure that opposition parties can hold the government of the day to account.

This cut could therefore be deeply damaging for accountability.”

There it is again. Accountability.

The Tories are actively trying to limit it wherever they can.

At every turn, they shrink from the light of transparency and retreat into the shadows.

All let me be clear – the SNP, The Greens, The Ulster Unionists, The SDLP and the Liberal Democrats – will all have their capacity to scrutinise the government and hold it to account significantly reduced by the cuts to Short money.

In power, Labour would reverse the cut in the Short money despite the fact it would help all our opponents – because good governance matters more than party politics.

This is not just a Tory power grab, though: it’s a pattern of behaviour. One which reveals a deeper truth about a Government that is fundamentally illiberal and increasingly contemptuous of the rights of the citizen.

Look at how they framed the Draft Regulation of Investigatory Powers Bill.

Most people agree that we need to rethink the statutory framework that governs the police and security services’ access to communications data.

We know how hard this is, and that it’s a battle to stay one step ahead of those who wish to do us harm.

But it’s a false choice to say these massive extensions of state power must be introduced without checks and balances.

It’s a false choice to say we either have security or privacy and accountability.

We can have both.

Take the example of judicial oversight.

The reports advised this, the Tories promised this, but actually what we’ve been given is a very limited review of Home Secretary’s warrants by a judge appointed by a Commissioner who is appointed by the Prime Minister.

That isn’t judicial oversight – it’s a fob.

And it shows that that the Tories view vital constitutional checks and balances as an inconvenience to be overcome rather than a democratic necessity to be protected and enhanced.

Labour must and will continue to press the Tories on this and other weaknesses as legislation goes through Parliament.

The combined effect of the Government’s actions – some large, some small – could unknit the ties that bind our civil society together.

If a thread is pulled often enough, an entire fabric can begin to unravel.

As such, and like the Thatcherites who were their political parents, Cameron and Osborne are not even good Conservatives.

Traditionally, Conservatives were supposed to care about the national fabric; supposed to want our great nation and its freedoms to endure.

But these people are not bothered about either.

It often seems to me that all they care about is power and money.

The Tories’ decision to review the Freedom of Information Act is a particularly egregious example of their determination to reverse the transparency Labour introduced.

The Information Commissioner described its review as an attempt to return to the “dark ages” of “private Government”.

Just think about that for a moment: “the dark ages” of “private government”; from the person charged with upholding transparency.

That is sinister stuff; but it’s true.

Earlier this week, Lord Kerslake, the former head of the civil service, told a cross-party Review of the Freedom of Information Act, which I co-chair, that the Act should stay.

He accused a government that leaks information selectively to journalists of “double standards”.

He said the claim made by his successor and predecessor, who said the Act had a “chilling effect” on Government were nonsense. Lord Kerslake’s verdict on that? “The chilling effect is largely in their own heads”.

And yet the Government insists on ploughing ahead with its review of the Freedom Of Information Act. Originally it didn’t want its commission to hear evidence in public. Pause to digest that one as well. This government wanted to hold the review of transparency – in secret. You couldn’t make it up.

Now they’ve been forced to hold oral sessions because campaigners have shamed them into doing so.

And the lesson David Cameron has learned from that? Must try harder to keep things more secret: lest the public embarrass us into doing things we don’t want to.

For all we know, the commission’s deliberations may never become public because it isn’t subject to the FOI regime it is reviewing.

And we’ll hardly trust this Government to tell us.

Most tellingly of all, the Government hasn’t even submitted evidence to the commission it established. That is almost unprecedented.

And I strongly suspect, as others do, that it hasn’t done so because it knows quite well that the Commission is already predestined to reach the conclusions the government wants.

So I am calling on David Cameron today to abandon the review.

It doesn’t have the support of the public.

It is opposed by many of the organisations that are covered by FOI.

It has been condemned by the Information Commissioner and slammed by a former head of the civil service. It’s a waste of taxpayers’ money.

The Freedom of Information Act works well.

Labour would strengthen and extend it.

There is another reason why we have to ensure checks and balances on excessive state power are hardwired into our democratic institutions and political culture.

It’s because changing economic realities will mean the state has to play a more enabling role in the generations to come. Let me explain what I mean.

The hour glass economy of the future is going to hollow out middle class jobs over the next quarter of a century.

If you haven’t already, please read “The Future of the Professions” by Richard and Daniel Susskind and “The Second Machine Age” by Eric Brynolfsson to see how the impact of automation and offshoring will have a dramatic impact on the shape our future labour market.

The Bank of England’s chief economist Andy Haldane made this clear in a speech last month.

In my view, if we are to adapt to the massive social upheaval that the impact of technology and automation is going to have on our society, there will have to be a growing acceptance of new forms of state partnerships.

I’m not talking about the next election but the direction of travel over the quarter of a century.

It is highly likely there will have to be a greater acceptance of the role of the state in market intervention, industrial strategy, economic planning as well as adaptation to climate change.

If this happens, there will also have to be far more safeguards to protect citizens from erosions of their individual liberty.

Governments have to work at this because there will be an institutional pressure to ignore the impact of increased state power.

You only have to see what technological power allows the government to do with the Investigatory Powers Bill.

For left leaning governments, it is important to have a strand of discussion that specifically focuses on civil liberties.

Left leaning political parties need to encourage internal debate about civil liberties.

We know that the British tradition is of Magna Carta. Signed 800 years ago this year.

Though what matters to our tradition is not the ancient document itself – which didn’t really address individual liberty at all – but its intense mythologisation by English jurists and political philosophers for the last 400 years as precisely such a visionary statement of the inalienable right and freedoms of British people.

Our reverence for the document continues to be enhanced, most recently in Cornelia Parker’s majestic embroidery, currently on display in the Bodleian library.

It embodies our tradition of liberty because we willed it so, because liberty was that important.

And it’s important on the left too.

We know all about the aspect of the socialist tradition which stretches back to Hegel and centres on equality of condition.

For sure, that’s one of the strands of our philosophical inheritance.

But I think we often forget on the British left that the other key strand of our tradition traces its roots back before Hegel, to Rousseau, and has as its founding principle not equality, but liberty.

Because you can’t have one without the other.

They are always and inextricably linked.

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