America can still teach us some lessons in democracy

'Hopes of a challenge to our notoriously secretive public culture now rest in the last-chance saloon'
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The Independent Online

Malpractice and laxity in counting votes is heinous wherever it happens. The much discussed Schadenfreude on display on this side of the Atlantic about the turmoil which has followed the American presidential election is therefore understandable.

Malpractice and laxity in counting votes is heinous wherever it happens. The much discussed Schadenfreude on display on this side of the Atlantic about the turmoil which has followed the American presidential election is therefore understandable.

But the patronising contempt hurled at the US political system, as devised by the constitution's founding fathers, is rather less defensible. Those in Britain who smugly profess utter amazement at the possibility that a US president could be elected while losing the popular vote by a wafer-thin majority may well be right. But they would do well to remember that in 1951 a Conservative government was elected on the basis of an election in which Labour won 230,000 more votes than the Tories. Or that, come to think of it, Labour formed governments in 1929 and 1974 despite Conservative majorities, measured by popular vote, of similar size in both elections. And that in the future it could happen again.

That, of course, is a mere detail. But there is another, more obvious, reason why those now gleefully pronouncing on the infinite superiority of British democracy should examine the beam in their own eye compared with the mote in that of the US. Which is the familiar old issue of checks and balances.

At the very moment at which scorn is poured from London on the travails of the presidency, two apparently disparate, but closely connected events conspire to underline the poverty of the British democratic infrastructure compared with the American version.

The first is the issue of the House of Commons. Last Thursday, the Commons itself debated a modest proposal for injecting a little more robustness into the Commons' capacity to scrutinise the executive by suggesting that the composition of Select Committees should no longer be in the hands of party whips, and thus in executive control.

The proposal has the backing of all Select Committee chairmen - Labour and Conservative. It would come nowhere near giving Select committees the power, status and staffing currently enjoyed by US Congressional committees. But it would mean that the backbenchers on those committees would be a little less subject than at present to their fears of party control or to their hopes of preferment when they report on the Government.

The debate, though of almost uniformly high quality, was not particularly well attended because there was no vote at the end of it. There was no vote, because as Margaret Beckett, speaking for the Government, explained, this was the first debate and it was, therefore, too early to have a vote. A vote is of some importance because the select committee chairman's proposal would almost certainly be carried, since the Government is pledged that when at some notional point in the future the issue of select committee composition is formally put, it would be a free vote.

Needless to say, Mrs Beckett did not actually indicate when, if at all, such a vote might take place. It is plain that the Government do not want the change to happen. And the reality is that it will not, at least in the foreseeable future, unless the Conservatives - who under William Hague are publicly committed to quite sweeping reforms of the Commons - choose to use an Opposition Day to force the proposal through.

But the second measure, which finally comes to a head in the Lords today, is Freedom of Information. Once again, a robust Bill - though of course, almost two centuries younger than the US constitution - has operated successfully across the Atlantic. Yet for nearly a year the British Government has done its best to limit the rights the Bill will confer on citizens to find out about decisions which affect their everyday lives. Hopes of a Bill that could seriously challenge the notoriously secretive public culture, as Tony Blair's Labour Party always insisted it wanted in opposition, now rest in the last chance saloon.

For Jack Straw has now made what he clearly hopes are his last concessions to the Bill's critics. They are, to say the least, modest. First, in cases where an applicant is required to demonstrate a public interest in the disclosure of the information he seeks, there will be a presumption in favour of disclosure if the public interest in disclosure is held to be of the same weight as the possible harm it might cause.

Second, when it comes to the background factual material behind government decisions, the department should have regard to the public interest in disclosure.

Third, the authorities will now have a statutory duty to help applicants frame their requests for information. And finally, in cases covered by the public interest argument, public authorities will have to say, after a fixed period, how long their intend to delay a response.

All these concessions are genuinely welcome, (even though the first is likely to be infrequently applied in practice and the second had already been granted once, and then rescinded). Indeed, the Liberal Democrat peers who have negotiated them with Mr Straw, believe that the Home Secretary was far from happy to make them. But whether they are, as those eminent peers now believe, a sufficient basis for agreeing the Bill in its amended form, is more doubtful.

For the fact remains that the concessions do not, in the end, go to the heart of many still glaring deficiencies in the Bill as presently framed. Leave alone that all material dealing with policy formulation is regarded as exempt from the Bill unless the applicant can prove - often in the difficult circumstances of not knowing the exact content of what he is asking for - public interest.

The Bill still exempts information acquired by bodies which can prosecute, including all the main safety authorities, such as the Railway Inspectorate or the Health and Safety Executive. It still gives ministers the power - admittedly after consulting Cabinet colleagues - to veto recommendations for disclosure by the Information Commissioner. And it still includes a menacing "catch all" clause which allows ministers to deny information on the Kafkaesque grounds that disclosure would prejudice the "effective conduct of public affairs".

The decision by the Liberal Democrat peers to accept these concessions as the price for backing the Bill may well be understandable. Apparently, they feared that the Tories would not in the end back them in taking the Bill to the wire. The Lib Dems are certainly right to believe that a deeply defective Bill would be better than no Bill at all. And commendably their home affairs spokesman in the commons, Simon Hughes, pressed straw last night for fresh concessions - including on safety issues. But the danger is that by blinking too soon, the Lib Dems have allowed Mr Straw to pass a Bill that is still a pale shadow of what Labour promised.

The primary fault lies with the Government, of course. Time is running out for the Lords to give the Bill a few of the teeth it lacks. And ministers, even at this late stage, should remember this: as with Commons reform, Freedom of Information may not make for more comfortable governments. But it will certainly make for better ones.

d.macintyre@independent.co.uk

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