When I was obliged to resign as a Minister in June 2013 because I would not give an Inquiry into the early release of a Government report my private emails, I made the comment that, “The sole reason that I did not disclose the full content of my emails was because of my strong belief that citizens, be they constituents, members of the public or journalists, ought to be able to communicate with their elected representatives in confidence if they wish, and we tamper with that right at our collective peril.” In the uproar that followed, that comment was dismissed by my political opponents as largely self-serving pap on my part, and generally ignored.
A subsequent investigation by Parliament’s Privileges Committee found that I had every right to withhold my emails and that the Parliamentary Service (the bureaucrats that run Parliament) should have at the very least consulted the Speaker of the House – which it had failed to do at any stage – before it had handed over copies of my metadata, phone records, and the even the file of the emails themselves to the earlier Inquiry. Along the way, the General Manager of the Parliamentary Service had resigned over its conduct, and the chief executive of the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet had offered his resignation as well.
In the light of all this, it was not unreasonable to assume that the Parliamentary Service would have learnt its lesson well and truly, and that it would be far more circumspect in the future about how it treated MPs’ communications. How the chickens have come home to roost with this week’s revelations that it has blocked emails between a senior Labour MP and a journalist because it considered them too “sensitive.” Suddenly, the very people who so ridiculed and scorned my 2013 comments as pious twaddle are making exactly the same comments themselves, now they are directly affected. While that U-turn can be quickly dismissed as nothing more than proof of their collective shallowness and vacuity, the more substantial question is why the Parliamentary Service has failed to learn the lessons of 2013, and still sees it as entirely appropriate to interfere in MPs’ private communications.
MPs are not employees in the technical sense, so they do not work “for” the Parliamentary Service, as some might assume. Therefore, employment law and practice regarding private communications do not apply. By its nature Parliament is different, so practices need to be tailored to Parliament’s special circumstances, not the other way round, the way some old-style senior public servants desperately believe should be the case.
Of course, it is possible that the current case is no more than a case of firewalls, and not active interference. The Parliamentary Service’s belated admission that it has been using the SEEMail screening system that government departments use, unchanged since 2007 lends some credence to this latter explanation. However, that raises another, more worrying question. Why is it that, given the pointed criticisms of the Privileges Committee, the Parliamentary Service seems to have blithely carried on unchanged? Where was the internal management that should have identified the problems likely to have been caused by SEEMail, and acted proactively to overcome these? Did the Parliamentary Service not foresee that a case like this week’s was bound to arise, sooner or later, that would put the management of MPs’ communications back in the spotlight? Or, is the real reason that the Parliamentary bureaucrats do not accept the point that MPs are not just extensions of the core public service?
One of the core tenets of our democracy is the right of citizens to have free and unfettered contact with their Member of Parliament. As a constituency MP of more than 30 years standing, I frequently receive personal information from constituents to assist me to advocate for them on a tax, or immigration, health or ACC issue, or whatever. They provide that information to me on a basis of trust, often in confidence, and virtually now always by email, because they rely on me to use it prudently on their behalf. They certainly do not expect faceless, unelected and anonymous bureaucrats to be using an old security system to screen their communications with their MP, and to decide what the MP should be allowed to see (or send). This week’s events will have shattered their confidence in that regard, and that is simply wrong.
I feel very sorry for the Speaker of the House. As the head of the Parliamentary Service, he has now been let down very badly on two occasions by this law-unto-itself organisation. They deliberately left him out of the loop in 2013, and he was left to come in and pick up the pieces. Exactly the same has happened on this occasion too. His considered statement to the House about the options available to deal with the now obvious shortcomings in the current system is helpful and merits further consideration – but by the MPs, not the bureaucrats. But why did it take this week’s revelations for the Parliamentary Service to even acknowledge to him that the system was failing? Why was it not raised in the wake of the Privileges Committee’s report in 2013, and why have that report’s findings been so obviously ignored? Why has the Speaker now been left twice in the invidious position of having to explain after the event what has gone wrong, and why the Parliamentary Service has been so inept? And who will be held accountable?
The openness and intimacy of our democracy is something to be valued. We should cherish the fact that week in and out constituents can visit their local MPs to discuss their problems in confidence and seek assistance. This week’s events strike at the very core of that relationship, so are much more than a technical argument about security. Unchecked, they pose a far more serious threat to representative democracy.