Tuesday, September 27, 2005

Flat taxes and formation of government policy

Martin Stabe has now had a reply from the Treasury to explain why they censored large parts of their FOI disclosure about flat taxes. I had speculated that they would be claiming exemption under either the Parliamentary Privelege clause or the clause relating to formation of Government policy.

In the event I was partly right Two exemptions have been used. Surprisingly section 27 on disclosures that would affect relations with foreign countries has been invoked. As Martin Stabe points out this can only relate to the information provided by the Estonian Government on their own flat tax scheme. A quick review of the FOI disclosure shows that the excisions from this paper are minimal. There is one paragraph missing from a section on the overall tax regime in Estonia and the name of the paper's author has also been obscured.

This looks fair enough.

The rest of the excisions have therefore been made under section 35 on information relating to the formulation of Government policy. This again is fair enough - the exemption is in the legislation. But as has been noted by both myself and Martin Stabe, the only parts excised from the disclosure are those parts which support the idea of a flat tax. On the face of it this is extremely odd. There urgently needs to be some explanation of why the Treasury feels these parts fall foul of section 35 but the sections critical of flat tax do not. One can only assume that they feel that their duty is not to embarrass the Government.

This seems to me to put the whole reputation of the civil service on the line. If civil service briefings to ministers are to be released to the public only in so far as they support the Government's position then the civil service becomes a political body - an arm of the Government rather than servant of the general public. There are enough instances already of "civil servants" doing party political work (think Alastair Campbell) without other parts of the bureaucracy being politicised.

At the end of the day the section 35 exemption has been included in the legislation for the convenience of government rather than the benefit of the public. We would be better off without it, particularly if it is going to be used as a weapon of Government propoganda.