A little prior knowledge is a terribly important thing

The Sketch
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The Independent Online
INFORMATION IS an odd kind of commodity, in that it depreciates in value every time it is traded. By the time knowledge has become common it will also have become virtually worthless, at least as a negotiable instrument, because although common knowledge can have large consequences in the world it is no longer an aspirational good. "Everybody knows that" is a coin of the realm so small that you wouldn't actually stoop to pick it up. Yesterday, in his statement on the draft Freedom of Information Bill, Jack Straw set out the Government's plans for what he would probably like to claim as a Big Bonanza Give-Away - a mass disbursement of information, from institutions which currently hoard it under their bureaucratic floorboards.

Those with an interest in the market value of facts - ministers, civil servants, MPs and journalists - needn't worry too much. Steps have been taken to prop up the price of privileged information, with several exemptions to the new principle of openness. Some indignation about this had been predicted over the weekend, with speculation that the tailwinds of last week's backbench rebellion might ruffle Mr Straw's hair too, but in the event it was something of an anti-climax, with even off-side Labour members prefacing their reservations with an acknowledgement that this was a genuine sea-change in government culture. Indeed, the harshest words came from the Opposition - which had undergone what Mr Straw described as a "Pauline conversion" to the cause of open Government, now that it no longer risked being embarrassed by it. Mr Straw, who has changed his own mind recently, decided that candour was the best defence against their box-fresh radicalism: "This was always a consultative process," he admitted, "a matter of second thoughts and third thoughts too". The government, it was clear, had carefully consulted its own convenience and adjusted the Bill accordingly.

But Mr Straw's statement was also an anti-climax because it had been pre-empted by an unexpected fuss, also, in its way, about Freedom of Information. While interrogating Alistair Darling during Social Security questions Conservative MPs discovered that a Government statement on the computerisation of benefit payments was to be made later. "To us?" they shouted, lower lips trembling with pre-emptive affront. "No", replied Mr Darling, and if he stuttered a little it is easy to forgive him. He knew what was about to break over him, the dignity and privileges of Parliament being one of the few issues on which Tory MPs are united. "This is outrageous" yelped Eric Forth, shooting upright to put a point of order. Madam Speaker told him he couldn't, adding darkly "the honourable member knows what he can do with his question if he wishes to". Had it been anyone else I would have taken this to be an invitation to shove it where the sun doesn't shine, but she must have been in sympathy, because when he repeated his protest later she agreed that "this House deserves greater respect than that".

There may be good reasons why the Government should announce important information in the Commons, rather than spinning their case to the press before MPs can question it. But there are certainly several bad reasons why MPs should insist so hotly on precedence, the most obvious being vanity. How dare the Government tell the taxpaying public, before their elected representatives? The sense of insult surely derives from the fact that the MPs have been deprived of the short but infinitely precious moment in which they know something that ordinary people don't, since their powers of scrutiny aren't obviously diminished by coming second. Freeing information is all very well, in other words, but a programme of controlled release is much preferred by all concerned.