Monday, August 22, 2005

Flat taxes & freedom of information

Freelance journalist and blogger Martin Stabe has given some valuable insight into the denial by the Treasury of ministerial involvement in the decision to censor the Freedom of Information disclosures on flat taxes.
If the redactions were justified with any of the 22 exemptions that don’t require the opinion of a minister, the Telegraph got the story wrong by assuming the Chancellor had some involvement.
Stabe aims to clear this up with a follow-up FOI request. This will request a copy of the response to the original request which should explain the exemption used. While there are indeed 22 exemptions as possible candidates, many can be discounted immediately - for example the national security exemption or disclosures which might affect foreign relations.
Of the remaining exemptions, the most likely candidates look like s34 Parliamentary privilege and s35 Formulation of government policy.

Whichever clause turns out to have been invoked, we will need to understand why some parts of the papers were considered to require censorship while others, often from the same paper, were not. My suspicion would be that Parliamentary privilege is the culprit. We know that some of the papers were put together as briefing papers for Lord MacKenzie's part in the Lords debate on flat tax. It may be that the parts censored relate to the parts of the briefing he left out of his speech in the debate - that is to say the parts which didn't support his case. This might explain why the excisions seem to have been almost entirely those parts supporting the concept of flat taxes.

It would however create a very odd situation. An honest minister might be expected to talk openly of the advice he had received from his civil servants and to explain in debate why he was discounting some of it. So to use the FOI exemption to supress inconvenient parts of the advice would be to use the law to support dishonesty and secrecy.

Which of course is what many people argued was the point all along.