Robinson and McGuinness try to block FoI request… as it will cost them votes
There are two ways of approaching the argument over Freedom of Information requests. One view holds that by making government documents immediately available, politicians and civil servants are made more accountable to the people and the process of government more transparent.
The other, advocated by the likes of Charles Moore, maintains that the actual effect of this policy is to inhibit open debate within government and, more seriously, move such discussions off the record altogether. We can find out about the ferocious arguments of governments thirty years ago. Thirty years hence, similar documents from our own era might simply not exist.
Possibly as a result of its inherently two-minded nature, Northern Ireland’s Office of the First Minister and Deputy First Minister (OFMDFM) tried to block a freedom of information request using both arguments at the same time.
Acting together and in person, First Minister Peter Robinson (Democratic Unionist) and Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness (Sinn Fein) moved to block an FoI request by the News Letter to publish the OFMDFM’s ‘risk register’ – a list of issues which are “causing concern” within the executive department.
Their justification was twofold: the first, which I have some sympathy with, is that forcing the publication of the register will have a serious impact on the practise of maintaining such registers within government, turning them into “anodyne documents” by prohibiting the “free and frank exchange of views”.
The second, commendably honest but thoroughly bizarre contention was that its publication might cost the First Minister and his Deputy votes. That’s not something politicians confess to very often.
This led the Information Commissioner to point out that “the electoral prospects of individuals are not strictly a relevant factor when weighing the public interest in the disclosure of information”, which you might have thought would be fairly obvious.
The OFMDFM is, according to the News Letter, one of only four UK institutions monitored by the Information Commission due to its poor form in complying with the Freedom of Information Act.
Scottish doctors demand Scotch Whiskey Association drop challenge to minimum pricing
In the latest instance of the British medical profession opting for proscriptions over prescriptions, Scottish doctors have appealed to the SWA to drop its legal challenge to the Scottish Parliament’s decision to impose a 50p per-unit minimum price on alcohol sold north of the border. One signatory called for it to “bow to the will of the Scottish Parliament. It’s the right thing to do.”
The SWA, which maintains that its challenge is based on principle, is unlikely to do so, and claims that the Scottish Parliament’s plans may contravene European law. It also argues that “untargeted” price-fixing of this sort will do little to curtail the actions of dangerous drinkers whilst penalising responsible consumers, especially those on low incomes.
Whilst I commend the principle and the SWA’s efforts, it seems hard to imagine that EU laws might actually serve to hinder the cause of moralistic price-fixing. And as ever, this sort of behaviour will only help to increase the use of imported, smuggled or otherwise black-market goods. Let’s hope the beneficiaries are North of England off-licences and not enterprising tobacco gangs.
Non-selective schools narrow A-Level gap with Ulster grammars
Published A-Level results in Northern Ireland have seen the province’s non-selective secondary schools move a little closer to closing the commanding lead enjoyed by grammar schools. Results in both sectors improved over the previous year, but selective schools enjoy a performance lead of 31.8 per cent when measuring pupils who receive three A-Levels graded A* to C.
Whilst this is down from 33 per cent two years ago, this is a markedly different picture from the situation with GCSEs. The gap between selective and non-selective schools for pupils gaining five GCSEs graded A*-C, including English and mathematics, stands at 56.2 per cent.
In a part of the country where the religious segregation of schooling remains the norm, the Catholic sector maintained its dominant position. Eight of the top ten grammar schools were Catholic, with the other two being non-denominational.
Devolution comes of age: The Sun considers Welsh bureau
A major milestone on the road to maturity could be in store for Welsh politics – albeit one some of its progressive advocates might feel they could do without. Speaking to an audience of school pupils in Cardiff, Sun editor David Dinsmore said that there was a five-to-one chance of the paper opening a Welsh office, citing the principality’s two Premier League football teams and devolved government as “encouraging signs”.
Dinsmore spoke about the need for an office to help counteract London-centric coverage of Welsh issues, but said he’d need to work out whether a bureau made financial sense before committing to one. He was prompted to speak on the issue by First Minister Carwyn Jones, who pointed out that the Sun prints separate editions for Scotland and Ireland.
Jones accused the London press of “anti-Welsh prejudice” at the Cardiff launch of News UK’s (formerly News International) new youth journalism programme, News Academy.
UUP leader Nesbitt backs unionist pact
Mike Nesbitt, leader of the Ulster Unionist Party, has publicly supported the idea of a vote-transfer deal between Northern Ireland’s unionist parties in the upcoming local and European elections.
Both elections take place under a form of PR, which makes such an arrangement easier to organise than it might be in England and Wales. Nesbitt said he was prepared to endorse voters voting “down the Unionist card” – meaning listing other unionist parties for their preferences – so long as others reciprocated.
This is the latest evidence that the UUP is being slowly drawn into Peter Robinson’s ‘unionist unity’ honeytrap. The First Minister and Democratic Unionist leader has spoken about his plans to maximise the unionist vote and announced that the DUP will not be running a second candidate in the European elections – which will make it just that little bit easier for the UUP’s Jim Nicholson to hold the party’s last seat in a national election.