Two pictures for you. The first is a photo I took of my TV – very technologically sophisticated, I know – at around 6.30pm on Monday. The second image, below, is a screenshot taken from the same chamber just after noon on Wednesday:
The picture of the chamber at the top includes just a sprinkling of MPs, mainly from the North West. The bottom picture shows a packed chamber, crammed to the rafters for a weekly event which – rightly or wrongly – is seen as the highpoint of the political week.
Why, in my opinion, should those two pictures shame many MPs? Simple – the picture at the top was taken during a debate in the release of documents relating to the 1989 Hillsborough disaster, at which 96 people lost their lives. For over 20 years, their families have fought to get all the facts. Only now, do they feel they are close to getting to see all the documents the government holds.
Out of sheer respect for the victims, you’d like to think that more parliamentarians could have made the effort to attend. Those who did attend delivered moving speeches. Big promises were made by the government relating to the release of the Hillsborough files although, crucially, the government still insists it won’t release documents now which had been the subject of a Freedom of Information request by the BBC and which the Information Commissioner insisted should be released straight away.
This debate was historic in another way too. It was the first time a petition had forced the Commons to debate an issue. Some 140,000 people signed an e-petition demanding the Government rethink its decision not to release the documents requested by the BBC – at the time of the creation of the petition, the Cabinet Office was fighting the Information Commissioner’s ruling that the documents should be released.
140,000 signatures. 140,000 people making the effort to click on a link and sign up. And yet still a largely empty chamber for what is effectively the first debate to be the result of public pressure. If that doesn’t tell us something about the detached world that is Westminster, then little will.
Yet, come 12 noon on Wednesday, the chamber was packed for the weekly half hour of back-and-forth barracking which, to be frank, generally, lowers the tone of politics in general. It’s a spectacle on to which the press Lobby and the political parties place too much emphasis.
Joey Barton, a much-maligned figure on the world of football, found the time to sit in the public gallery on Monday night to watch the debate take place. Rio Ferdinand, a Manchester United footballer, indicated he was watching the debate live on BBC Parliament in a Tweet he posted on Monday evening. The significance of the debate wasn’t lost on those outside of Westminster, so why the empty space inside the House of Commons?
The public had spoken. In terms of attendance, it appears many MPs chose not to listen.
Those who did attend, to be fair, delivered moving speeches and didn’t try to score political points over who had failed the Hillsborough families the most. The speeches were moving, as articulated by the families in the public gallery who spoke to the Liverpool Echo.
Sadly, all sides involved in the debate appeared to overlook the a key sentence in the petition which read: “As requested by information commissioner Christopher Graham.” At the moment, the government is committed to releasing all the files to the Hillsborough Independent Panel, which will then decide what is released to the public. It will also allow the families to see all the documents unredacted.
While that is a massive step forward, it also ignores the fact that governments can’t start stipulating the conditions for the release of information which the Information Commissioner has ruled should be released. While the intentions of the Government may be noble on this occasion – allowing the Hillsborough Panel to release all the documents in one go – it’s a dangerous precedent which is open to abuse in the future.
The debate also focused on the despicable actions of The Sun and it’s ‘The Truth’ front page in 1989 which led to a boycott of the paper which still continues to this day. Many MPs called for The Sun to release all the information it had about the source of that story. Kelvin MacKenzie, the editor at the time, suggested on Question TIme several years ago that it came from a news agency, but nothing is certain. Some 30,000 people have now signed a new e-petition calling on The Sun to release that information. Quite how that will work should a debate be triggered on the back of 100,000 signatures, I’m not sure.
News International, at the moment, is an easy target for MPs. The fact that the Daily Mail has been quick to point out it has been highlighting the Hillsborough campaign of late while employing MacKenzie as a columnist seemed to pass MPs by. Will The Sun cave in to MPs? Who knows. The fact the government is declaring itself above the law on FOI could strengthen The Sun’s case for refusing to do so, but I would hope not.
Monday, as I said earlier, was a historic day in the Commons for more than one reason. It’s a shame so few MPs had the presence of mind or respect towards the public to recognise that.