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Category: Leveson Inquiry

Without the ability to use the Freedom of Information Act to probe the Metropolitan Police and the Crown Prosecution Service, the Labour MP Tom Watson doubts whether a House of Commons select committee would have made the progress it did in exposing the cover-up over the phone hacking scandal at the News of the World.

He fears that the Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition government is trying to find ways to restrict the scope of the Act – a move recommended by the former Cabinet Secretary Sir Gus O’Donnell, and a view echoed by the former Labour Prime Minister Tony Blair.

By using repeated Freedom of Information requests the Culture, Media and Sport Select Committee forced the Metropolitan Police and the Director of Public Prosecutions to reveal the contents of their hospitality registers which contained details of social engagements with News International executives.

By using the Act, the committee gained the disclosure of information which otherwise would “still be hidden” and which was far more revealing than could have been obtained by parliamentary questions to ministers.

 

 

In delivering the Parliamentary Affairs annual lecture at the House of Commons (18.1.2012), Watson described the chain of events which led him to take on the Murdoch press – a stand which earned him awards for politician and backbencher of the year.

He said that both Scotland Yard and Crown Prosecution Service had been forced to disclose the contents of their hospitality registers. They revealed lists of social and professional engagements of two senior officers at the Metropolitan Police, former Assistant Commissioners Andy Hayman and John Yates, and the former Director of Public Prosecutions, Lord Macdonald, and the contact there had been with either Rupert Murdoch, two of his closest colleagues Les Hinton and Rebekah Brooks, or other News International executives.

Watson said he believed the socialising that was revealed was inappropriate because it took place when the original – and incomplete – investigations into phone hacking were being conducted. These engagements appeared to be in breach of the relevant policies on hospitality and additionally they were not with “key journalists” as stated but with executives who did not have formal news gathering responsibilities.

“Indeed I think these meetings were entirely inappropriate...and they would never have come to light without the Freedom of Information Act...and I don’t think that level of detail has ever been reported by a national newspaper.”

Watson feared that the post-legislative scrutiny of the Freedom of Information Act which is being undertaken by the Justice Select committee – on behalf of the Ministry of Justice – could be used by the coalition government to restrict its scope and use.

“I believe the Freedom of Information Act will be under attack in the next twelve months...and we would not have made the progress we did in exposing the largest media scandal in recent press history had we not had the FOI at our disposal.”

Watson, deputy chair of the Labour Party, said he believed the opposition should mobilise support to defend the Act and make it a Labour election manifesto commitment to extend its scope and put additional obligations on public organisations to reveal information in good time.  “Building on FOI is one way we can ensure citizens can hold the government to account.”

He expressed disappointment that in Tony Blair’s memoirs the former Prime Minister revealed that he felt Labour had made its worst mistake in implementing freedom of information. And he was even more alarmed on hearing the former Cabinet Secretary Sir Gus O’Donnell suggest that curbing public disclosure would “help promote good government.”

“Although Nick Clegg has said some positive things, I am worried we could end up with a more limited Freedom of Information Act as a result of coalition proposals.”

He urged the Justice Select Committee to reconsider the huge number of exemptions from the Act which could be used as a defence for non disclosure as had happened over identity cards, MPs’ expenses and the Iraq War. Since the general election the Culture Select Committee had made 2,000 Freedom of Information requests and it had become a vital tool in applying pressure to organisations whose operations and structures were defective.

Illustration: The Guardian g2, 30.8. 2011

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