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Friday, December 24, 2004

Only the freedoms they allow us

The stories of civil servants frantically shredding documents in advance of the commencement of the Freedom of Information Act underlines how paranoid New Labour has become and how secrecy has become institutionalised at the heart of Government. There is no evidence that this is happening in the Welsh Assembly, though to be fair I do not believe that anybody has asked the question. On the contrary the Welsh Assembly Government put in place very early on a comprehensive code on freedom of information that has so far worked very well. This has been revised in accordance with the Act and we will now have to see whether information remain accessible to us.

The real panic of course has been in certain parts of the Assembly Parliamentary Service and specifically members of the House Committee. There have been concerns that details of expense claims by Assembly Members will become an in-demand item and ingenious minds have been put to use in the hope of minimising the damage. As I understand it receipts supplied to the Fees Office by AMs to verify expenses will, in future, be returned to the member instead of being retained in the records as now. This will put the onus on the enquirer to direct their request to the member rather than the Assembly Parliamentary Service if they want anything more than outline information. Whether the member keeps the paperwork or destroys it straight away is a matter for them, their conscience and the taxman.

My view is that this course of action is unnecessary. Of course there is a danger that we will be inundated with trivial news stories about expense claims rather than the issues, but that is unavoidable. The important thing is that AMs expenses are audited and verified, in that way we can get some assurance that public money is being spent according to the rules.

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