Posts Tagged ‘Freedom of Information’

Private Eye on Plans to Introduces Charges and Privatise Land Registry

April 27, 2016

This past fortnight’s Private Eye also has an article on the government’s plans to introduce charges for using the Land Registry, which they are also currently trying to privatise. Private Eye has covered the proposed privatisation in its ‘In the Back’ section, because of the threat this poses to freedom of information. The Eye has used the Land Registry to track some of the various companies holding vast chunks of land in our fair country back to offshore tax havens. The article runs

Cash Registry

No sooner has the last Eye gone to press, revealing the Land Registry’s plan to frustrate a supposed move towards transparency by charging thousands of pounds for information on offshore companies holding property, than business secretary Sajid Javid said the organisation would be privatised.

His time – as the Panama leaks again show the value of public access to who owns what land and property – was less than ideal.

There is no pretence that the sale, which will further threaten the 150-7ear-old body’s inclination to act in the public interest, is for any reason other than to raise around £1bn to reduce the national debt. This is about 0.06 per cent total government debt and far outweighed by the benefit that a publicly-owned, fully open register would provide in fighting tax evasion and corruption.

Javid claimed, with a straight face, that a privatised Land Registry would benefit from “private capital discipline” and that service would be protected by “key performance indicators” while creating “innovative, new products”. The people who use it, however, disagree fundamentally.

When the coalition floated the idea of farming the Land Registry out to a separate company in 2014, the response was resounding raspberry. Rejecting the plan, the government said: “91 percent of respondents did not acre that creating a more delivery-focused organisation at arm’s length from government would enable Land Registry to carry out its operations more efficiently and effectively.” Only 5 per cent thought it would.

Since most responses were from people working in the property business Javid now says he wants to serve, this was a resounding rejection of a step that was less dramatic than the privatisation now proposed. “Across the world, a trusted system of land registration is central to social stability and economic success,” said former Land Registrar John Manthorpe of the “misguided” plan.

So far one private equity group, Advent International, has expressed an interest. It already owns a number of businesses in the UK such as money transfer company Worldpay – not directly, of course, but through the tax haven of Luxembourg. Just the people for a “trusted system of land registration”.
(Private Eye, 15th-28th April, p. 1).

I don’t agree with the Eye’s conclusion that the privatisation is being done to pay off the debt. The money raised from the sale is too small to make any difference. It looks to me far more to be another ideologically-driven privatisation, done largely to provide their big business donors with yet another state industry. And the charging and privatisation is also being done to keep it out of the reach of the general public, who could use it to draw the highly embarrassing information about British capitalism and landownership that the Eye has done from using it.

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This Fortnight’s Private Eye on the Lies of Ian Duncan Smith

March 23, 2016

The issue of Private Eye for this fortnight, 18th – 31st March 2016, also has a little piece on the long series of lies uttered, if not spouted, by Ian Duncan Smith. It’s in response for Smith claiming in the pages of the Daily Mail that the opponents of Brexit are using ‘spin, smears and threats’. Which of course, the Dishonourable Member would never do. Except that he has. Frequently.

When he was running for the leadership of the Tory party in 2001, he claimed that he had turned down offers of a place in the government so as to be able to continue opposing the Maastricht Treaty. His memory must have been playing tricks on him, because John Major, the Prime Minister of the period in question, stated that he never offered aIDS a job. Smudger’s office then issued a ‘clarification’, admitting that he had really only been offered the job of parliamentary private secretary – which the Eye describes as ‘the lowest form of unpaid bag carrier’ to Jonathan Aitken by one of the Tory whips, Greg Knight.

Then in 2002 Michael Crick from Newsnight had a peek at the Quiet Man’s claim on his CV at the Tory party website to have gone to Perugia University. Er, no, he didn’t. He went to another educational institution there, but didn’t complete his exams and didn’t get a diploma.

He was also criticised by the head of the UK Statistics Authority, Andrew Dilnot, for claiming that 8,000 people, who would have been affected by the benefit cuts, have been moved into jobs, and that this demonstrated that the cap was working. Dilnot said instead that this was false, and not supported by the official statistics from his department.

The Eye then proceeds to discuss the decision of one of the judges at the administrative appeals chamber, Nicholas Wikeley, which upheld the judgement of the lower tribunal that the DWP should issue details from the report on how his Universal Credit project was progressing. The Eye notes that this was the third such legal judgement that had been made. Smiff has tried to fob the public off with the excuse that the report’s publication on why the project is overtime and over budget would have a ‘chilling effect’ on its operation. Wikeley instead stated that the Gentleman Ranker had offered no such evidence for this.

Mike’s covered the Ranker’s long history of lying and fantasising over his blog, and the Eye’s article is yet another public reminder that IDS is congenitally incapable of telling the truth. Perhaps there should be an award given to the most flagrant and prolific liar in the Tory party, just like there is the Orwell Prize for the best literary work on politics. I suggest we call it the Archer Prize for Fictional Politics.

‘I’ Newspaper Reports Cabinet Secretary Happy with Freedom of Information Legislation

December 23, 2015

Today’s ‘I’ newspaper has a report on page 4 that the Cabinet Secretary, Sir Jeremy Heywood, who declared that some elements of the FOI Act have “a chilling effect” on the workings of government, is now ‘broadly happy with the way the current rules operate’. This is apparently despite the accusations that he has been accused of advocating that the public’s right to government information should be diluted under the current government review into its operation. The article also states that the Civil Service has also made no representations about the review.

I’ve repeatedly covered on here the struggle Mike over at Vox Political, and the efforts other disabled people and carers, to gain access to the figures on the number of people, who have died after being declared ‘fit for work’ by ATOS and their successor, Maximus. As I said in my last blog post, they have been repeatedly denied the information by the DWP. Their reasonable requests have been turned down as ‘vexatious’, and even when they have launched a successful appeal, the government has stonewalled, delayed releasing the information, appealed against the Information Commissioner’s decision, and finally deliberately supplied the wrong information.

Private Eye has also made an FOI request to gather information on the vast amounts of British land that is now held by offshore companies. And guess what? They have similarly been turned down on the grounds that their request is also ‘vexatious’.

This is not open government. This is a return to the kind of Whitehall secrecy that was regularly portrayed and lampooned in the classic comedy series, Yes, Minister. With the exception that we don’t have a premier as fundamentally well-meaning and likable as Jim Hacker, the bumbling Minister for Administrative Affairs. And even the Machiavellian and suavely devious Sir Humphrey was more benign in his way than the current crew of official bandits and snobs now in government. If Jeremy Heywood is happy with the way Freedom of Information Act operates, then this is hardly an endorsement. Quite the opposite. He is happy, because the government is denying people information.

Mike and the disabled have suffered it.
Private Eye is now suffering it.
Johnny Void has made it very clear that those campaigning against workfare have suffered it.

And the government has stated that they are opposed to giving the public information, as they use it to attack government decisions, when they should really be putting up with it all and simply use the information to understand how the decisions are made.

This is not ‘freedom of information’ under any except the most limited definition of the term. The cabinet and the senior civil service are natural elitists and authoritarians, who object to public involvement in government with every fibre of their being. As for the review into FOIA, it is being led by two of the worst authoritarians in government. One of these is the former Home Secretary, Jack Straw, who has stated that the Freedom of Information Act was a terrible mistake.

This is disgusting. The review should be terminated immediately. Or better yet, its members and leaders should be sacked, and a new one drafted, which would demand greater transparency. But that won’t happen until we get to the fundamental problem: the Conservative government and its wretched collaborators, like Heywood.

Private Eye on Government’s Attempt to Destroy Freedom of Information Act

November 15, 2015

This fortnight’s Private Eye has a piece attacking the government’s attempt to neuter the Freedom of Information Act. It takes apart their claims they are doing so ‘because newspapers are using it to generate stories’, and gives the email address for people to contact the Commissioners to express their opinions on the issue. The Private Eye article makes much the same points Mike over at Vox Political and the other bloggers have done.

I’m posting up the article as you have to email the commissioners before the end of Friday, 20th November. This means that if you feel so strongly about this issue that you want to state your case to the commissioners, you only have about five days or so left.

FOI
Cry Freedom

The government’s “Independent” commission of the great and not so good on the future of the Freedom of Information Act is looking for views on if and how the rules should be changed. The mood music is not encouraging.

First there was the appointment of former cabinet ministers with little interest in the full truth emerging – Lord (Michael) Howard and Jack Straw – while no campaigner for more openness was invited on the commission. Then last week the leader of the Commons, Chris Grayling, complained that the law was being used by the media to “generate stories”. How appalling!

Among the “stories” that would not have come out were it not for the legislation, and might not again if it were watered down or subject to financial charges, are MPs’ expenses and several exposed in the Eye over the past ten years, including: the recent mapping of English and Welsh property owned by offshore companies; the “shameful” (the Coalition’s word) privatisation of part of the UK’s international development fund CDC; rampant junketing by the country’s public spending watchdog; the scale fo the “tax gap” (extent of the tax dodging in the UK); the schmoozing of Whitehall mandarins that forced the open publication of hospitality registers; and New Labour’s prolific and ruinous spending on management consultants and the disastrous NHS IT project – to name just a few.

Readers who think such matters should continue be exposed, or indeed if they think they should be covered up, can write to foi.commission@justice.gsi.gov.uk by the end of Friday 20 November.

Private Eye on A4E Lobbying at 2013 Lib Dem Conference

February 19, 2015

I also found this story in Private Eye’s issue for the 18th to 31st October 2013.

McNally Pally: How Lobbying Works

Documents released to Private Eye under freedom of information show how scandal-hit welfare-to-work contractor A4E used last year’s Lib Dem party conference in Brighton to get around obstructive civil servants and arrange an official meeting to lobby justice minister Lord McNally directly over probably contracts.

Along with other “workfare” providers, last year A4e wrote to all Ministry of Justice (MoJ) ministers asking for a meeting as the department made plans to privatise the probation service and dole out some very big contracts.

Given that at the time A4e was facing allegations of fraud (these led to nine former employees being charged last month) senior MoJ civil servant Jenny Giblett was not keen.

“From our perspective there would be no specific need for a meeting,” she wrote. In particular, she highlighted “presentation and media handling” issues since “A4e suffered some reputational damage in connection with the earlier allegations of fraud.” She stressed that meetings with ministers “are declared, and are the subject of repeated parliamentary questions and freedom of information requests”.

Justice secretary Chris Grayling and two of his ministers declined to meet A4e. But an anguished civil servant revealed: “Lord McNally has let me know this morning that he agreed whilst he was at Lib Dem Conference to meet with XXX for A4e.”

The firm’s Lobbyist had already used the conference, where ministers are free of their civil servants, to extract a promise of a full meeting with the minister in his office. Though Lord McNally was advised of the ministry’s position and the possible pitfalls, he made “very clear that he is going to meet with XXX of A4e, as he promised …”

One civil servant’s email reads: “He is going to need some very robust advice if we think he shouldn’t proceed with a meeting. Lord McNally has been chased directly by A4e twice already.” Another said: “If we’re going to convince him not to do it (which it seems to me we should!), I’m going to need to give him some more robust arguments. Do you think you could outline in an email the reasons you think such a meeting would be ill-advised.”

In the event the official Whitehall meeting went ahead. By nabbing Lord McNally at the party conference, A4E was able to overcome its “fraud” issues and gain official access to the MoJ ahead of other companies.

The record of the Whitehall meeting last November says A4e’s lobbyists expressed “concern that the level of risk organisations are being asked to take, at least initially, should not be too burdensome” for probation contracts, and tried to talk down “the risk of huge penalties for initial failure to meet targets” on such contracts, which Lord McNally said he “understood”.

This shows how the workfare companies continue to get contracts: through very aggressive lobbying, aided and abetted by politicians, who have absolutely no qualms about talking to a firm mired in a corruption scandal. And it all tells you all you need to know about the ‘business-friendly’ Lib Dems that McNally ‘understood’ A4e’s demands to have as little risk put on their shoulders as possible. It’s an attitude that has seen the taxpayer continually picking up the tab for late and shoddy work in other parts of the public-private partnership system.

ATVOD Begins Internet Censorship

June 28, 2014

Amnesiaclinic, one of the commenters over on Vox Political, posted this video from Not UK Column News as a comment to Mike’s article on the conviction of Cameron’s aide for possessing paedophile material. The video is by the two or three leaders of UK Column, a website which includes videos, critically examining and reporting current events. It seems to be part of the British Constitution Group, an organisation which believes that the British constitution has been undermined and corrupted by the rich and powerful. I really don’t know who British Constitution Group are, nor what, if any, their political affiliation is. A casual glance at their website shows that they are concerned with the destruction of the NHS, and also with the apparent theft and kidnapping of children by NATO officials. If this is the case, then they’re really similar to organisations like Index on Censorship, which report suppressed or censored news.

The two male presenters in this video, with a female co-presenter looking on from the rear of the car, describe the way ATVOD, the statutory body regulating On-Demand Video, has decided that because they have videos which they consider to be ‘television-like’ on their Youtube Channel, Not UK Column News therefore constitutes an On-Demand Video service which needs to be regulated. They therefore hit them with the legal paperwork requiring them to register with them. Rather than submit to this attempt at censorship, UK Column News has simply taken down its videos from Youtube. They take the view that this is the beginning of the censorship of the Internet.

The two presenters state that ATVOD was initially set up in 2003 to stop TV companies putting on their websites material which was unsuitable for broadcast. This largely seems to have been pornography. The two UK Column presenters note that ATVOD’s material about itself discusses its work in closing down and protecting children from on-line porn. Peter Johnson, the head of ATVOD, was a former member of the British Board of Film Classification. The UK Column people state that the boundaries of the sexual content that is considered permissible in film has expanded, and so it seems that Johnson has simply jumped from regulating the pornographic to the political. The other head of ATVOD is Rachel Evans, a woman, who holds a long, long line of directorships. So long, in fact, that it takes about five minutes for one of the presenters to read them out. They remark on the fact that in her list of directorships and official positions, she does not mention that she was part of Liberty, a group that campaigned for paedophiles. They also remark that while ATVOD claims that the majority of the board adjudicating a case must be independent, in practice they are anything but. The so-called independent members have strong links to the broadcasting companies. Indeed, key BBC personnel had a role in formulating the body’s policies, and then, when it came to regulating the Beeb over a particular case, the Corporation was eventually acquitted. It’s clearly a case of conflict of interest, but not according to ATVOD, which insists that it is independent. The two state that Johnson himself admitted that ATVOD’s role is essentially to police the established broadcasters’ competitors. They see ATVOD as having moved far beyond its original remit to suppress any competition to the main television, no matter how small or trivial they are.

They also point out that by ATVOD’s own admission, the scope of the laws which regulate On-Demand Video providers are unclear, and ATVOD itself has no clear guidelines on this issue, as it states that these arise as each individual, different case is dealt with. They therefore see this as an admission that ATVOD are basically making them up as they go along. If this is all true, then ATVOD is something of a kangaroo court, whose lack of precise legal boundaries make it a threat to free speech and discussion in this country.

This is vitally important at this particular time. Last Sunday there was a demonstration by 50,000 people, including MPs and media ‘slebs, against government austerity. Despite the fact that it was held right outside Broadcasting House, it was not covered in anything except a derisory way by the media in this country. It was not mentioned in the papers, and only received the barest moments of coverage on the BBC’s rolling news channel and radio. This looks like a concerted attempt by the British media class to avoid covering anything that might send Cameron and his cronies into ‘a fearful bate’, as the great philosopher and educationalist Nigel Molesworth would sa. Even if it is only incompetence, an excuse I find much less than plausible, it still shows the vital necessity of alternative sources of news outside the official channels controlled by the Beeb and the empires of Murdoch, Dacre, Desmond and co. The grand hope of the Libertarian Net pioneers when it was set up was that the web would allow ordinary citizens to circumvent the restrictions of tyrannical and repressive governments. See the Declaration of Independence of Cyberspace, as an example of this. During the Arab Spring and the Green Revolution in Iran, dissidents used social media and the internet to get around official censorship. It’s why the Internet and the freedom of information it represents is feared by the Communist authorities in Beijing, who have erected the Great Firewall of China. The same attitude appears to be shared by the Internet regulators here in the UK. A number of left-wing websites have warned that the British authorities would try to clamp down on websites offering critical political material. Pride’s Purge was hit a while ago, when the Net authorities tried to restrict access because the site contained ‘adult content’. Well, it does in the sense that it deals with politics, which is a business for adults, rather than the kind of material sold on the tops shelves of newsagents or broadcast by Richard Desmond’s specialist TV station.

This is a warning: the authorities are trying to close down dissent, and the two from UK Column News are correct when they state that this is the thin end of the wedge. Here’s the video, and see if you agree with them.

The Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen from the French Revolution

April 16, 2014

Artisan Washerwom pic

An artisan and a washerwoman toast the health of the French Revolution as members of the ignored and oppressed ‘Third Estate’.

I found this text of the Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen made by the French Revolutionaries in 1789 in D.G. Wright’s Revolution and Teror in France 1789-1795 (Harlow: Longman 1974). Although it’s very much the view of patriotic French middle class, it is still one of the founding statements of modern democracy and political liberty. Here it is:

The representatives of the French people, sitting in the National Assembly considering that ignorance of, neglect of, and contempt for the rights of man are the sole causes of public misfortune and the corruption of governments, have resolved to set out in a solemn declaration the natural, inalienable and sacred rights of man, in order that this declaration, constantly before all members of the civic body, will constantly remind them of their rights and duties, in order that acts of legislative and executive power can be frequently compared with the purpose of every political institution, thus making them more respected, in order that the demands of the citizens, henceforth founded on simple and irrefutable principles, will always tend towards the maintenance of the constitution and the happiness of everyone.

I Men are born and remain free and equal in rights. Social distinctions can only be founded on communal utility.

II The purpose of all political associations is the preservation of the natural and imprescriptible rights of man. These rights are liberty, property, security and resistance to oppression.

III The principle of all sovereignty emanates essentially from the nation. No group of men, no individual, can exercise any authority which does not specifically emanate from it.

IV Liberty consists in being able to do whatever does not harm others. Hence the exercise of the natural rights of every man is limited only by the need for other members of society to exercise the same rights. These limits can only be determined by the law.

V The law only has the right to prohibit actions harmful to society. What is not prohibited by law cannot be forbidden, and nobody can be forced to do what the law does not require.

VI The law is the expression of the general will. All citizens have the right to take part personally, or through their representatives, in the making of the law. It should be the same for everyone, whether it protects or punishes. All citizens, being equal in the eyes of the law, are equally admissible to all honours, offices and public employment, according to their capacity and without any distinction other than those of their integrity and talents.

VII A man can only be accused, arrested or detained in cases determined by law, and according to the procedure it requires. Those who solicit, encourage, execute or cause to be executed arbitrary orders must be punished, but every citizen called up or arrested in the name of the law must obey instantly; resistance renders him culpable.

VIII The law must only require punishments that are strictly and evidently necessary and a person can only be punished according to an established law passed before the offence and legally applied.

IX Every man being presumed innocent until he has been declared guilty, if it is necessary to arrest him, all severity beyond what is necessary to secure his arrest shall be severely punished by law.

X No man ought to be uneasy about his opinions, even his religious beliefs, provided that their manifestation does not interfere with the public order established by the law.

XI The free communication of thought and opinion is one of the most precious rights of man: every citizen can therefore talk, write and publish freely, except that he is responsible for abuses of this liberty in cases determined by the law.

The guaranteeing of the rights of man and the citizen requires a public force: this force is therefore established for everybody’s advantage and not for the particular benefit of the persons who are entrusted with it.

XIII A common contribution is necessary for the maintenance of the public force and for administrative expenses; it must be equally apportioned between all citizens, according to their means.

XIV All citizens have the right, personally or by means of their representatives, to have demonstrated to them the necessity of public taxes, so that they can consent freely to them, can check how they are used, and can determine the shares to be paid, their assessment, collection and duration.

XV The community has the right to hold accountable every public official in its administration.

XVI Every society has no assured guarantee of rights, or a separation of powers, does not possess a constitution.

XVII Property being a sacred and inviolable right, nobody can be deprived of it, except when the public interest, legally defined, evidently requires it, and then on condition there is just compensation in advance.

cameron-toff

David Cameron, whose government represents aristocratic privilege over the working classes, the poor, the disabled, and whose policies violate many of the rights the Revolution declared to be universal and inviolable.

Just reading this list shows how deeply reactionary the Tories and Tory Democrats are. They don’t believe that everyone should have equal rights before the law, nor can this government claim they represent ‘the general will’. They weren’t elected: they took power through a backdoor deal with the Tory Democrats, and were elected anyway on a severely diminished percentage of the population who legally have the right to vote.

They also do not believe in the freedom from arbitrary arrest and open public justice. There is the continuing scandal of the stop and search of Black men. The Tories and their Tory Democrat accomplices also passed a law providing for secret courts meting out a highly Kafkaesque brand of ‘justice’.

We have also seen a gradual diminution and erosion of our right to free speech and freedom of conscience and opinion, under the guise of national security.

The Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen also provides for something like the Freedom of Information Act. As a citizen, it states that we have the right to have it explained to us how our taxes are spent, so that we can freely consent to them. Yet the Tories have consistently refused to issue the information on the number of disabled people, who have died since Atos declared them fit for work. Mike and the other bloggers, who have attempted to obtain this information, have been denounced as ‘vexatious’ for so doing. Johnny Void on his site today has also reported that the government is refusing to release a report documenting the shambolic failure of their ‘welfare-to-work’ programme. They have openly confessed before that they don’t want details of it to be released as this would make it unpopular and prevent it from operating.

And then there is the abomination of the Bedroom Tax. This is a tax, as Mike and the others have shown, and it has been levied on the very poorest to force them out of their homes.

As for the taxation being levied at the same rate so that people can pay according to their means, they have deliberately and flagrantly rejected it. They have awarded massive tax cuts to the rich, while the poor have seen the tax burden increase through indirect taxation.

There is precious little about this government which agrees with this founding document of political and civil liberty. And the Tories know it. They have always stood for privilege and the rights of the feudal and upper middle class elite. In 1789 the French Revolutionaries abolished feudalism, including the forced labour the aristocracy required their serfs to perform. The unpaid internships and workfare are its modern equivalents, and have been reintroduced under the Tories.

And so is democracy destroyed by this most undemocratic of governments.

Vox Political Goes to Tribunal for Freedom of Information 23rd April

March 29, 2014

Confrontation: Let's hope the FoI tribunal ends as well for Vox Political as his encounter with the dragon did for St George. [Image: bradfordschools.net]

Yesterday, Mike announced that he finally had a date for the tribunal, which will adjudicate on his appeal against the decision of the DWP and the Information Commissioner to refuse to release to him the figures for the people who died whilst claiming ESA or Incapacity Benefit in 2012. Mikes states that

The aim is to find out how many people died while going through the claim process, which is extremely stressful for people who are – by definition – ill or disabled; and also to find out how many have died after being put in the work-related activity group of Employment and Support Allowance claimants, as these are people who should be well enough to work within a year of their claim starting.

The great Soviet dissident, Andrei Sakharov, made a ringing declaration of the immense importance of freedom of information, as well as speech, for a truly democratic society. I’ve already blogged on this on Sunday, but given the immense importance of this issue, Sakharov’s words still bear repeating.

Intellectual freedom is essential to human society – freedom to obtain and distribute information, freedom for open-minded and unfearing debate, and freedom from pressure by officialdom and prejudices. Such as trinity of freedom of thought is the only guarantee against an infection of people by mass myths, which, in the hands of treacherous hypocrites and demogogues, can be transformed into bloody dictatorship. Freedom of thought is the only guarantee of the feasibility of a scientific democratic approach to politics, economy and culture.

But freedom of thought is under a triple threat in modern society – from the deliberate opium of mass culture, from cowardly, egotistic, and philistine ideologies, and from the ossified dogmatism of a bureaucratic oligarchy and its favourite weapon, ideological censorship. Therefore, freedom of thought requires the defence of all thinking and honest people. This is a mission not only for the intelligentsia but for all strata of society, particularly its most active and organized stratum, the working class. The world-wide dangers of war, famine, cults of personality, and bureaucracy – these are perils for all mankind.

He then goes to state that a true Freedom of Information law must allow for the active encouragement of examination and investigation:

A law on press and information must be drafted, widely discussed, and adopted, with the aim not only of ending irresponsible and irrational censorship, but also of encouraging self-study in our society, fearless discussion, and the search for truth. The law must provide for the material resources of freedom of thought.

E. Salisbury, ed., Sakharov Speaks (New York: Knopf 1974), in Robert V. Daniels, A Documentary History of Communism Vol 1. Communism in Russia (London: I.B. Tauris & Co. Ltd. 1985), 372,373.

Sakharov was writing in the very repressive conditions of the former Soviet Union. Nevertheless, his description of the immense importance of freedom of thought and information is relevant everywhere. I hope that the Tribunal similarly believes in the absolute importance of freedom of information, and upholds Mike’s appeal.

Andrei Sakharov’s Demands for Freedom of Speech and Information

March 22, 2014

Andrei Sakharov pic

Soviet Dissident Andrei Sakharov, ardent campaigner for peace, freedom of speech and information. These are not qualities the present British government likes either.

Andrei Sakharov was one of the most famous and determined dissidents of the former Soviet Union. In his bitter criticism of the Soviet state and especially Stalinism for its horrific abuse of human rights, as well as the other ideologies threatening the survival of the world and its peoples – racism, fascism, Maoism and militaristic demagogy, Sakharov demanded freedom of speech and the freedom to obtain information. In the 1974 book, Sakharov Speaks, he comments on the immense of importance of freedom of speech and information, and the terrible threats posed to them. He stated

Intellectual freedom is essential to human society – freedom to obtain and distribute information, freedom for open-minded and unfearing debate, and freedom from pressure by officialdom and prejudices. Such as trinity of freedom of thought is the only guarantee against an infection of people by mass myths, which, in the hands of treacherous hypocrites and demagogues, can be transformed into a bloody dictatorship. Freedom of thought is the only guarantee of the feasibility of a scientific democratic approach to politics, economy and culture.

But freedom of thought is under a triple threat in modern society – from the deliberate opium of mass culture, from cowardly, egotistic, and philistine ideologies, and from the ossified dogmatism of a bureaucratic oligarchy and its favourite weapon, ideological censorship. Therefore, freedom of thought requires the defence of all thinking and honest people. This is a mission not only for the intelligentsia but for all strata of society, particularly its most active and organised stratum, the working class. The world-wide dangers of war, famine, cults of personality, and bureaucracy – these are perils for all mankind.

Robert V. Daniels, A Documentary History of Communism: Vol. 1 – Communism in Russia (London: I.B. Tauris & Co. Ltd 1985) 372.

Amongst the democratic reforms he demanded, as well as measures to ensure peaceful coexistence and end hunger, was for a Soviet Freedom of Information Act. He said

A law on press and information must be drafted, widely discussed, and adopted, with the aim not only of ending irresponsible and irrational censorship, but also of encouraging self-study in our society, fearless discussion, and the search for truth. The law must provide for the material resources of freedom of thought.

Ibid, p. 373.

Sakharov was writing in the repressive conditions of the former Soviet Union during the reign of Brezhnev, the President, who had ended the Prague Spring of 1968 by sending in the tanks to preserve Communist rule. Yet his comments are also unfortunately still very much applicable in the 21st century, including contemporary Britain.

Mike and a number of other bloggers have had their requests for information from the government under the Freedom of Information Act repeatedly turned down. In Mike’s case, this was for information on the number of people, who had died after being found ‘fit for work’ by Atos. Individual requests for this information had been refused by the Department for Work and Pensions as it was deemed too expensive and difficult to justify retrieving the information for just one person. When others asked for the same information, like Mike over at Vox Political, it was refused as ‘vexatious’.

We do indeed have a Freedom of Information Act, though in this and many other instances it obviously did the opposite of ‘encouraging self-study, fearless discussion and the search for truth’. I’ve commented before, as has the Angry Yorkshireman on the strong similarity between the government’s workfare programme, and the forced labour campaigns under Stalin. Here our government bureaucracy is also showing another, Stalinist trait – it appears to be an ossified bureaucratic hierarchy based on dogmatism and censorship. The government has replaced much of the senior civil service with Special Advisors, drawn from right-wing think tanks and private industry, who tell it exactly what it wants to hear.

Its economic and welfare policies are also pure dogmatism. Despite the considerable evidence that the economy is not improving, that people are becoming much poorer, and that starvation and malnutrition are returning once again to British society – the government is continuing with its policies, and denying that their harmful effects are actually occurring. Maggie’s former Cabinet minister, Norman Tebbit, was in the Daily Fail yesterday repeating the old lie that people were using food banks, not because they were starving, but simply because it was cheap food. It’s a lie of the same type, though hardly on the same scale, as Stalin’s propaganda in the 1930s that the USSR was a land of plenty where food was more than abundant, filled with happy, smiling peasants, while the truth was the absolute reverse: that people were dying in their tens of millions from famine.

The type of regime blocking and censoring inquiries into the political reality are from opposite ends of the political spectrum. Nevertheless, both regimes share a common mindset – the desire to preserve the regime from criticism at all costs. The Department of Work and Pensions stated at one point quite openly that they would not reveal the information about the numbers of people, who had died due to their welfare reforms as this would turn public opinion against them, and so stop them going ahead with the reforms.

Sakharov’s defence of freedom of speech and information against the repression of the Soviet speech was one of the greatest statements of this fundamental human right in the 20th century. Sadly, it is even now needed as much as ever in Conservative and Conservative Democrat Britain in the 20th century. Free speech and information needs the active support by all of us, and particularly by the working class. It is the working and lower middle classes, who are being hit the hardest by the Coalition’s welfare reforms, and they clearly recognise that they have something to fear from a British public armed with the truth.