Monday, February 26, 2007

Party committees and confidentiality

The most recent issue of Liberator magazine includes an article by my friend David Grace putting the case against the party supporting a renewal of Trident. In it he quotes some of the less impressive arguments put in favour of keeping Trident at a recent meeting of the Liberal Democrats' Federal Policy Committee. In doing so, he has caused no end of a row - chiefly in the comments to this posting on the blog of another friend, Alex Wilcock.

Reading only a little way between the lines, it is clear to Alex that everyone knows that FPC's discussion take place under the Chatham House Rule and there can be no excuse for ignoring this.

But I was a member of FPC for several years and cannot recall the question of confidentiality ever being discussed. It seems that Linda Jack and Peter Black have the same memories. Given that I never received any written guidance on the committee's standing orders or anything like that either, it is hard to know where this certainty that the Chatham House Rule applies at FPC comes from.

A more interesting question is whether Chatham House Rules should apply to party committees. After all, we Liberal Democrats spend a lot of time campaigning to open up other people's deliberations to public scrutiny. Why should our own be treated differently?

The argument Alex uses is:

I thought it best to make it clear the terms on which ... reports should be made of meetings so that the FPC as a whole can be held to account but individuals are not intimidated into mistrustful silence or circumspection.
But are the peers, parliamentarians and others who get themselves elected to FPC really the sort to be intimidated. If they aren't prepared to put their name to what they believe, are they the sort of people we want there?

I recall attempting to remove some of the more anti-libertarian elements from our animal welfare policy a few years ago - don't worry, I failed - and was aware that this was a controversial thing to do. It would have seemed to me quite fair that the people who elected me should know how what I said and how I voted, just as they had done when I was a member of Harborough District Council. At one time it was a criminal offence to report proceedings at Westminster, but we have moved on since then.

A stronger argument might be along the lines that there would be a danger in the press and opposing parting finding out about debates and disagreements within our own party. In particular, if one of our shadow ministers made a strong case for something at FPC and later settled for a compromise, it might be personally embarrassing.

But then MPs spend most of their time trying to get into the newspapers with their views; FPC would hardly be the only place they expressed them. If you can't make a plausible defence when you change your mind about something, you won't last long in politics.

Another, more depressing, argument is that FPC's deliberations have a limited effect on party policy. Our policy-making process is so ponderous, and the political and media worlds are so fast-moving, that it is inevitable that our shadow minsters are forced to react to developments without reference to FPC. Richard Kemp recognises this in another Liberator article and calls for the process to be streamlined to make it at once more effective and more democratic.

And if you do think something like the Chatham House Rule should apply to FPC, is the committee itself the right body to decide exactly what its terms of operation should be. Once we have been elected to a committee we are always prone to believe that other people lack the ability to fully appreciate its proceedings - best not to confuse them with too much information.

I have no strong feelings on this, beyond a basic preference for free debate over censorship, but I think these questions are worth asking.

One thing however is clear. If you want to know what is going on in the party, subscribe to Liberator.

1 comment:

Alex Wilcock said...

Hi Jonathan – well, I think it all got a bit silly and I was one of the ones who got needlessly cross, though perhaps I react less badly to being ribbed than some. I think you may have got the wrong end of the stick, though. I don’t think “everyone knows” that’s the rule; I just raised an eyebrow at the chap who, er, quoted the Chatham House Rule by name in referring to the policy group on Trident he was part of, then said it never occurred to him that it might possibly apply to a policy discussion on, er, Trident. I might be right, I might be wrong, but either way, it still seems appropriate to have laughed about it, and less appropriate to scream about “libel” and “slander”. I have to admit, though, in the years I’ve known David he’d never struck me as the sort of chap who, well, might strike me for sending him up. I might have hesitated if I’d realised he thought it proper only to mock other people.

Maybe confidentiality was never discussed while you were on FPC; it’s come up once or twice that I remember, but not for ages. Could it just be because in all those years of reports circulating about FPC, sometimes from me, sometimes very detailed, never censored, never talking down to people as ‘too much information’ (though they often say I provide exactly that) still no-one ever got maliciously dumped on? Maybe people only talk ‘Rules’ when someone won’t play nice.

You’re right to debate it. I know I have in the past: you never got any written guidance on the FPC’s standing orders because it doesn’t have any – the one time I suggested we get some (I was very young), it didn’t get any support. I dunno; maybe it makes sense to go with complete, attributed reportage. I’ve never complained about anyone quoting me, as long as they don’t make it up, but that’s the problem, isn’t it? No-one’s going to write Hansard for it, so whose account is the accurate one? So, I’ve suggested anyone who was there and thinks David got it wrong post their own account, so we can all make up our minds. Would I be ‘reading between the lines’ of your article to assume you don’t think that’s necessary? Of course everyone should subscribe to Liberator… But no-one should have it (or anything else) as their sole source of information.