The most open country in the world Not while Sir Humphrey's minions won't tell the truth about migrants
23:29 GMT, 5 December 2012
Sir Jeremy Heywood has a very good sense of humour. Who he He is the Cabinet Secretary and the most senior civil servant in Whitehall — a sinuous figure who, according to some authorities, virtually runs the country.
Naturally, this is officially denied. Indeed, Sir Jeremy’s very existence has sometimes been disputed, so reluctant is he to peep over the parapet. But he did once appear, albeit in a lofty and distracted way, in front of a Commons select committee, so it can be provisionally stated that he does exist.
Further evidence emerged on Wednesday when a highly amusing article by him was published in a low circulation newspaper. Of course, it could be a spoof written by a journalist pretending to be Sir Jeremy. But I suppose these days it might be a crime to impersonate the Cabinet Secretary.
Sir Jeremy Heywood, the Cabinet Secretary and the most senior civil servant in Whitehall is a sinuous figure who, according to some authorities, virtually runs the country
His piece appeared under the headline ‘We’re turning Britain into the most open and transparent country in the world’. He boasted about the vast amount of data the Government holds on all of us.
Apparently, he can ‘even tell at the touch of a button how late your train into work is likely to be’. If so, I wish he would tell us before we travel.
Anyway, some of this information will be released by a body called the Data Strategy Board, with names and addresses removed so that no one can be identified. The result, argues Sir Jeremy, is that we will all have a much better idea of what is going on. ‘Transparency makes for better government,’ he writes.
No doubt it does. The joke, of course, is that someone who cranks levers so assiduously behind the scenes should be advocating greater openness. If he is being sincere (and I’m afraid I doubt it) perhaps he could turn his attention to other manifestations of one of the most secretive democracies in the world.
Sincere Perhaps Sir Jeremy could turn his attention to other manifestations of one of the most secretive democracies in the world
He could start with the Freedom of Information Act. It is perfectly true that this has shone a light into some of the workings of government that were previously murkier than they are now. But the process of making FOI requests can be cumbersome and costly.
In more than a quarter of cases in 2011, Whitehall departments used exemptions as a reason not to supply data. The more secretive institutions are in any case beyond the reach of FOI requests.
Moreover, gov-ernment can always use a veto to block the release of information granted by the Information Commissioner, as both Tories and Labour have done in respect of the Cabinet papers in the build-up to the Iraq war.
Whitehall often appears to regard FOI requests as at best troublesome, at worse vexatious. Tony Blair’s disclosure in his memoirs that he had ‘quaked at the imbecility’ of the Act will have rung sympathetic bells in this Government. But perhaps Sir Jeremy Heywood, devoted as he is to transparency, will overhaul the process.
When he has finished with that, he could turn his attentions to proposed secret courts, which would allow civil cases involving national security to be conducted behind closed doors without newspapers being able to report the proceeds.
We already have the Special Immigration Appeals Commission, which hears some evidence in secret sessions. Then there are the family courts, whose deliberations are often unreported as a result of judicial diktat, admittedly sometimes for defensible reasons.
In his quest for ever greater transparency, Sir Jeremy could then try to make barely accountable quangos more answerable. Or he might recommend that the length of time that government records are kept secret be reduced not from 30 to 20 years, as the Government intends, but to 15 or even ten years.
There is much to do for anyone who really believes in more openness. Obviously there are some aspects of government policy, mostly to do with national security, that necessarily have to remain secret.
In last week's Leveson report there were momentous proposals which, if adopted, might make our secret state more secretive still
But very often the ramparts are raised not to safeguard the state, but the reputations of politicians and — dare one say it — of judges and senior civil servants.
Thank God we have a free Press, you may say. But do we Not only it is constrained by the sort of restrictions I have mentioned. Almost in margins of last week’s Leveson report were momentous proposals which, if adopted, might make our secret state more secretive still.
For example, investigative journalists who breach data protection rules could be jailed for two years.
Both David Cameron and Nick Clegg rightly raised concerns about such a swingeing measure.
David Cameron and Nick Clegg (pictured) raised concerns about some of the proposed measures in the report
Leveson also would like to put an end to off-the-record briefings of journalists by police officers.
Scandal after scandal has been exposed as a result of unauthorised briefings given by police to newspapers — not least the uncovering by the Mail of shocking failings in the original Stephen Lawrence investigation.
Indeed, an open society depends on police and civil servants feeling able to pass on privately secret information to journalists that reveals incompetence or corruption. Such people don’t do it for money, but because they are driven by conscience and a sense of what is in the public interest.
Sir Jeremy may claim to believe in greater transparency but I find it difficult to credit that he does. It would be interesting if more data about our lives were made public, but real transparency arises from the Government being less secretive about important issues.
For example, it emerged earlier this week that the Government won’t provide an official estimate of the number of Romanians and Bulgarians who may come here when restrictions on their movement are lifted at the end of next year. After massively underestimating the number of Polish immigrants in 2004, Whitehall must have a pretty good idea this time, but it won’t level with us because it fears a row.
Some transparency! We are still treated like children who have little right to know what is being done on our behalf. The notion that releasing some general statistics about our lives will lead to greater openness is laughable.
Or, to put it another way, is the positively mysterious Sir Jeremy Heywood, courtesy of the editor of the Independent, having a very good joke at our expense