Without the provision of full information, it is not possible for Parliament, or for that matter the public, to assess what consequences, in the form of attribution of responsibility or blame ought to follow.
A denial of information to the public denies the public the ability to make an informed judgement on the Government’s record. A failure by Ministers to meet the obligations of Ministerial accountability by providing information about the activities of their departments undermines, in my opinion, the democratic process. – Sir Richard Scott
This is not my first article on ATI because I think that it is a sine qua non of good governance. Access to information is an indispensable component of democratic and accountable government and over the years, but with increasing frequency, many Barbadians have made a case for access to information. Certainly it is important to the media which the public rely upon for its information. That is why it is so critical that the media engage in open discussion no matter where the discussion takes place. It is that which enables us to make responsible decisions. But far too often, sections of the media for various reasons, are too reticent in doing so, whilst on other occasions, hammer the non-existent nail.
I have argued before that given the secrecy conventions in our system not everything is open to the public. But Westminster can be two-faced. On the one hand, whilst holding to the confidentiality rule which includes, among other things, secrecy, (part of that is also related to issues of public interest immunity), Westminster also anticipates that ministers must be accountable to Parliament. This untidiness is neatly captured in the words of distinguished authors and a former government insider. It was John Griffith and Michael Ryle who in 1989 argued that “the success of a democracy is to be judged to the extent to which it can assure that government is publicly accountable.”
Two years earlier, former permanent secretary Sir Patrick Nairne contended that “The secrecy culture of Whitehall is essentially a product of British parliamentary democracy. Economy with the truth is the essence of a professional reply to a parliamentary question.”
Deciphering the notion of the confidentiality rule reveals that it is expected that ministers be frank and open. It is thus the duty of every member of cabinet to be open. In this context, “openness” means nothing more or less than to respond to their individual failures or misconduct and if necessary be fired or resign.
When I am in doubt about the conventions of Westminster, I often retreat to the source, that is, the mother of all Westminsters. Conventions in Britain tell us that openness is an indispensable aspect of parliamentary government that every minister must assume under the doctrine of ministerial responsibility. In that respect, ministers are constitutionally bound to assume responsibility. How is this connected to the right to information?
How else can ministers be held accountable? Legislative and parliamentary experts would argue that the provision of information is the best means by which government can be held to account. And given that we are all concerned with issues of good governance (transparency and accountability), this can only be effectively achieved when power holders are held to account. This means Parliament and the public must have access to accurate information. So, access to information is thus the means by which the Executive branch of government can be held to account. In its absence, what we have is unaccountable government.
But these two conflicting conventions continue to pose difficulties for good governance. In late 1993, British Prime Minister John Major, appointed a Commission of Inquiry chaired by Sir Richard Scott, charged with the responsibility of investigating the export from the United Kingdom of defence equipment and dual-use goods to Iraq between December 1984 and August 1990.
This was important as the British government had publicly maintained that it would have neutrality in the conflict between Iran and Iraq and undertake no activity that would prolong or exacerbate the tension between the Persian Gulf nations.
The copious five-volume, over 2000 page report which was finally submitted more than three years later, is much too lengthy to read in its entirety at this time, but one of the most telling and consistent themes to emerge is the conflict between Government’s desire to keep its internal workings secret, and the demands of Parliament and the courts for information. Though the report was quite critical about the secrecy-obsessed ways of Whitehall and its outposts, profound change has not occurred. This ought not to surprise us for secrecy still resonates in Britain today as well as the Commonwealth Caribbean.
The Scott inquiry revealed the cringe-worthy contempt by ministers and civil servants of parliament, for the truth. It was not just bending the truth. According to the report, for the most part, the Conservative government engaged in tremendous subterfuge and half-truths in parliament. The 1996 report’s response to this behaviour, that is the chicanery of government, was clearly articulated in very strong language. The report noted that the Government’s failure to make full disclosure in the non-neutrality in the Persian Gulf Conflict, as in other instances where to disclose might be politically or administratively inconvenient ‘lies at the heart of the important constitutional principle of Ministerial accountability’. In other words, for government ministers, it is better to lie to the people than to accept responsibility for bad decisions which, quite frankly, goes against the logic of responsibility.
To that Scott was clear. Detailing the manner in which Government had flip-flopped its policy over arms sales to Iraq, the report reveals a disturbing picture of ministers and civil servants acting without the benefit of parliamentary accountability. We must take note of the fact that any failure to provide reliable information to Parliament and therefore the public, effectively denies citizens the ability to make an informed judgement on the Government’s record. Worse, any failure by ministers to meet the obligation of ministerial accountability – given the interpretation provided above – and to provide information about the activities of their departments undermine the democratic process. Is this not what we are concerned about? Or is it about holding on to power at all cost?
“… the more information there is, the less likelihood there is of it being ill-informed.” ~ Sir Richard Scott
(Cynthia Barrow Giles is a senior lecturer in political science at the University of the West Indies, Cave Hill Campus)