Leading Article: Playing poker with Parliament

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THE SHOCKING aspect of William Waldegrave's confession is not that ministers on occasion lie to Parliament in the national interest: there are clearly rare moments - for example, in time of war - when this practice can be justified.

No, the real shock is Mr Waldegrave's shameless acknowledgement that ministers routinely tell Parliament less than the whole truth. His candour, refreshingly honest and no doubt embarrassing to the political classes, deserves a certain backhanded praise. The minister responsible for more open government has at last confirmed what high-ranking civil servants have occasionally let slip and the public has long believed. Mr Waldegrave has owned up that he and his colleagues dissemble in public for no better reason than to hoodwink their opponents (and, if inadvertently, the public).

As he told MPs: 'Much of government activity is much more like playing poker than like playing chess. You don't put all your cards up at one time.' His image of the Cabinet as a school of poker players, bluffing and concealing their real purposes, is compelling. As a description of how the current system operates, it is remarkably accurate. Ministers have all too often demonstrated that they are also not beyond keeping cards up their sleeves and under the table. Nor, given current jostling for the party leadership, would they stop short of eliminating fellow players by underhand methods.

Yet voters are increasingly frustrated with the sleight of hand that characterises ministerial behaviour. They recognise that, as a model for constitutional government, the deceits of a poker game fall well short of what Walter Bagehot would have regarded as ensuring the dignified conduct of public business. It is Mr Waldegrave's responsibility not merely to reveal how the game is played, but also to introduce measures that would make its continuation difficult.

Mr Waldegrave's naive disclosures make only more urgent the need for a wide-ranging Freedom of Information Act. Its introduction would clarify what needs to be kept secret in the public interest and what should be open to scrutiny. A decision that deemed information unsuitable for the public gaze would be subject to judicial review.

This legislation would challenge the comfortable collusion between civil servants and a government that treats the public as an irritant from which as much information as possible should be withheld. Many of the Government's present trials - the Scott inquiry and the Pergau scandal, for example - spring from a reluctance to break this conspiracy and ensure open government.

Mr Waldegrave, who sometimes acts like a political innocent and is certainly more honest than many of his colleagues, has offered the public a glimpse of the murky, ministerial world. The spectacle is not elevating and should act as a warning against the morally corrupting effects of today's unnecessary levels of secrecy.