Readers have sometimes proposed that I try to enlist the support of a British MP for efforts to get information from the various stonewalling UK climate institutions, such as Fortress CRU. In fact, it seems that British MPs have had their own personal reasons for not supporting FOI. For the past 5 years, they have stonewalled FOI requests by journalist Heather Brooke for details of their expenses (2006 comment here). Speaker Michael Martin led the stonewalling campaign. Brooke challenged the MPs in court and, in May 2008, won a notable success. But a year later, even with a court victory, she was still no further ahead.
In the last couple of weeks, the ground suddenly shifted. Using a tried-and-true method (chequebook journalism), the Daily Telegraph purchased a disk with details of MP expenses. The reasons for the stonewalling became pretty clear. MPs expensed the public for things like repairs to the moat at the family castle of one MP to a subscription to Playboy Channel for the husband of another MP. No detail seemed too large or small not to be charged to the public. A climate scientist would have said that the situation was “worse than we thought”.
The worst of the trough-feeding arose over provisions entitling MPs to purchase and improve 2nd and 3rd homes at public expense, under the guise of being nearer Parliament or nearer their constituency, even if the 2nd home was only a few miles closer to Parliament than the original home. MPs as a class seem to have become small-time real estate speculators with the public underwriting the cost of their speculations, but not the capital gains. The public anger is not just about the chiseling, though the anger about the chiseling is real enough, but about the influence of these sorts of perqs and benefits and MPs as a class.
The exposure of the pigs at the trough has angered the British public and amused the rest of the world (e.g. CBC in Canada here.
One of the first casualties of the affair was Speaker Michael Martin, who had been administered the expense program and who had directed the prolonged litigation against revealing the expenses. Martin became the first speaker since the Little Ice Age to resign – in climate science, this is known as an “unprecedented” resignation.
After spending five years trying unsuccessfully to get the expenses, Heather Brooke was understandably a bit sour at being scooped by the Daily Telegraph merely buying the information, but gamely expressed some vindication at this sorry mess being exposed, observing sensibly:
But I don’t begrudge the paper. It is getting the story out in the most cost-effective way possible. What’s unforgiveable is that the House of Commons repeatedly obstructed legitimate requests and then delayed the expense publication date and that MPs went so far as to try to exempt themselves from their own law. I wonder, too, how much we would have actually seen if we’d waited for the Commons to publish, given that MPs were given a free hand to black out anything that was “personal” or a danger to their “security”. These terms have been so overused by MPs that I’ve no doubt that items such as cleaning the moat would have been removed for “security” reasons, as would the house-flipping scandal, as an invasion of MPs’ privacy…
And now MPs are feeling morose. Tough! They’ve had plenty of opportunities to do the right thing by parliament and by the people. At every juncture they behaved in the worst possible way. They refused legitimate requests, they wasted public money going to the high court, they delayed publication, they tried to exempt themselves from their own law, they succeeded in passing a law to keep secret their addresses from their constituents so as to hide the house flipping scandal …
As CA readers, David Holland, Willis Eschenbach and I have been given a variety of fanciful and untrue excuses by climate scientists stonewalling FOI requests. Within this reverse beauty contest, the excuses of Hadley Center executive John Mitchell for refusing to provide his Review Comments on IPCC AR4 chapter 6 are among the most colorful: first, Mitchell said that he had destroyed all his correspondence with IPCC; then he said that they were his personal property. David Holland then submitted FOI requests for Mitchell’s expenses for trips to IPCC destinations and information on whether he had done so on vacation time, while also confronting Hadley Center with their representations to the public on how Hadley Center scientists were doing the British public proud through their participation as Hadley Center employees in IPCC. So Hadley Center foraged around for a new excuse – this time arguing that releasing Mitchell’s review comments would compromise British relations with an international organization (IPCC), IPCC in the meantime having informed Hadley Center that it did not consent to the review comments being made public – ignoring provisions in the IPCC by-laws that require them to make such comments public. In administrative law terms, there is unfortunately no recourse against IPCC – an interesting legal question that we’ve pondered from time to time (also see Global Administrative Law blog here.)
We’ve also tried unsuccessfully to obtain Caspar Ammann’s secret review comments on chapter 6, which IPCC failed to include in their compilation of Review Comments and which Ammann and Fortress CRU have refused to make public.
It’s hard to picture exactly what’s in the Mitchell correspondence (or Ammann correspondence for that matter) that’s caused the parties to be so adamant about not disclosing comments that are properly part of the public record. In Mitchell’s case, I suspect that the reluctance arises not so much from the fact that anything particularly bad was said, but merely that the record would be embarrassingly empty – thereby showing (what I believe to be) an almost complete casualness to discharging any obligations as a Review Editor other than swanning off to IPCC destinations.
As long as we don’t know, it will of course be a mystery. A couple of weeks ago, MP expenses were a mystery as well.