Thursday, 13 March 2014

On corresponding with politicians...


The other week the people who make sure Bradford Council complies with data protection rules and regulations popped along to talk to the Conservative Group. Not specially as they'd planned visits to other groups too with the aim of explaining what we could and couldn't do, what permissions we needed and how we should keep stuff (electronically and otherwise).

The discussion raised a few splutterings - we were told that, without the person's permission, we couldn't share a constituents letter with our ward colleagues or, technically, with an officer, which until you think about it seems a little daft. But, as anyone dealing with the public's interaction with politicians knows, people do not always behave rationally or indeed contact us with wholly benign purpose.

And, as I'm sure all the journalists and such like know, data protection trumps freedom of information - the letter that Mrs Smith wrote to me isn't governed by those rules, it's governed by data protection rules. And unless she has given me permission to share your FOI request will fall on stony ground.

Indeed why should you believe you have some sort of right to see a private exchange of correspondence between me, as a politicians, and a person who chooses to write to me? It really is - in the true meaning of the phrase - none of your business. It seems reasonable for me to say, if asked, that I have corresponded with Mrs Smith but the content of the letters is a matter between me and Mrs Smith not between me, Mrs Smith and the whole of humanity.

And this is as it should be. Those who believe that every last exchange that every single public official has with anyone and everyone should be made public are not only wrong in law but damage the proper delivery of public service, whether it's the MP or councillor responding to the concerns of a resident about her noisy neighbour, a minister fielding letters from people who think they're more important than they are, or indeed a public official dealing with a complaint about his department.

There's a debate to be had about transparency but it isn't about private correspondence but about the manner in which policy decisions are made and the information on which those decisions are taken. At no point does private correspondence between the politician or official and someone outside government come within the scope of that transparency.



Anonymous said...

So the letters between government ministers and Prince Charles should be private?

Simon Cooke said...

On balance, yes. Unless they relate or derive from his official duties.

When he is King then the answer should be no.