Monday, December 01, 2008

The Julian Lewis List

One of the problems of having a memory like mine, and indeed a propensity for atopicality like mine, is the extent to which things will crop up long after they were said. The whole house moving process has brought one such nugget back to the surface as it has now become rather more relevant to my own experience than it was before. That nugget is the Freedom of Information (Parliament and National Assembly For Wales) Order 2008.

The John Lewis List's dominance of the nation's political discourse seems an age away now, but for a while it was the only story in town. True to form, Parliament leapt into action... to save their own skins. The result was an exemption protecting the home addresses of MPs, AMs and Lords from release under the Freedom of Information Act. The campaign to secure the exemption was spearheaded by Julian Lewis (no relation), MP for New Forest East, who spoke at length about the risk of an Al-Qaeda letter bomb-spamming campaign against MPs.

That's all very well and probably proper, although I don't share Dr Lewis's faith in the idea that his local militant cell will be unable to find the address information he and his colleagues are required to give at election time because it doesn't come up on Google. But while MPs were getting their knickers in a twist about a possible change to the status quo, it strikes me that they gave very little thought to the one area of government where disclosure of addresses already is the status quo; councillors.

It is true that councillors do not have to disclose their home addresses; indeed, of Cardiff's 75 councillors, five presently do not do so. Culturally, however, we are very much expected to do so and that cultural expectation does have a tangible effect on our work. I did not disclose my previous address as I was a lodger and did not feel it was fair to the permanent resident of the house to place their address on record; in that time, I definitely received less letters than my ward colleague whose address was and is disclosed.

Ultimately, not disclosing a home address does not make MPs or AMs appear to be less contactable; they have constituency offices and people are happy to write to the House Of Commons or the Senedd as they think of these places as the group of members. When writing to a councillor at County Hall, however, people think of it as The Council, a monolithic house of bureaucracy within which their letter will surely either be lost or “lost”. It isn't true by any means, a councillor's post is just as secure and just as sure to reach them via County Hall as it is to a home address, but the cultural perception is there.

Meanwhile, we councillors may be somewhat less subject to possible terrorist attack than our parliamentary colleagues (though in such matters it pays not to be presumptuous as to what Al-Qaeda may or may not consider getting up to) but we're no less likely to face identity fraud or physical or sexual harassment than them.

Unfortunately I don't have any clever idea for solving the problem; legislating against years of cultural expectation is rarely a fruitful task. What the whole sorry tale underlines, however, is the problem of Parliament's inflated sense of its own importance. The potential security implications for councillors weren't so much as mentioned; heck, I'm half surprised the Assembly even got a look in. As ever, until local government is considered part of the system rather than a separate adjunct to it, all of government will be the poorer for it.

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