Politicians always talk fine words when it comes to accountability. They want to be accountable. They want a strong, free Press to hold them to account. They want to be accountable to their electorate. But be it nationally or locally, when it comes to politicians and accountability, actions speak louder than words.
I wrote the other week about the police and crime commissioner in Humberside who, when challenged by the Grimsby Telegraph about a decline in the number of officers on duty based on information provided by a police source, chose to threaten the Official Secrets Act rather than deal with the issue at hand.
And today the Birmingham Mail reports that investigations editor Jeanette Oldham has been banned from asking questions of the Office of the Police and Crime Commissioner in Birmingham, and must now submit all her questions via the Freedom of Information Act.
It’s worth remembering that these very well paid police and crime commissioners, created at a cost of millions across the UK at a time when police budgets were being slashed, were supposed to be about promoting transparanecy and accountability within the police force.
They are the watchers of the police. In Birmingham, however, it seems the watchers don’t like being watched. The Mail reports the move follows two articles which appeared in the Mail:
On May 14 this year we revealed the office had awarded a £60,000 contract to Broad Street BID, an organisation that no longer technically exists. The BID employs Alicia Mosquito as its deputy manager. Her mother is Yvonne Mosquito, the Deputy Police and Crime Commissioner.
The OPCC had said the police chief notified it of her daughter’s role, and took no part in the contract tendering process.
We also told how Alicia’s friend Olivia Everett had landed an unadvertised job at the OPCC office where she now works closely with Ms Mosquito.
At the time OPCC spokesman Richard Costello denied they were good friends, stating that they simply went to school together.
Yet on June 5 the Birmingham Mail published a photograph of budding actress Olivia and Alicia enjoying birthday celebrations together.
We had also seen other pictures of them together at social events and the pair are ‘friends’ on Facebook.
In highlighting the OPCC’s response to these articles – ie the ban – the Birmingham Mail is providing a perfect example of what can happen when the need for scrutiny of public bodies isn’t properly thought through by those creating such organisations.
For all the bluster of Eric Pickles as communities secretary in the last parliament as he demanded local government become more accountable, he did little to enforce it. Likewise the Home Office with the OPCCs, which did little to ignite public interest in the running of police forces, and provided very little guaranteed access in law for scrutiny of these new bodies.
The idea of armchair auditors looking at all council spending over £500 died a death because too little thought was put into making the data meaningful to the average member of the public. Even allowing for all the redactions councils can put in – some of which are entirely justified – data which tells you the name of a supplier, the amount spent and which department spent it doesn’t, in truth, tell you very much at all.
The reason this is so important now is because we are on the cusp of another wave of political restructuring. Devolution is on its way to Greater Manchester, and to other major city regions too. Whether you believe this is a good thing or not, there is hopefully no denying that with such major power moves there has to also be a cast-iron guarantee that those making decisions will be accountable.
And that is where successive national governments have failed journalism, and by extension, the wider public. The Local Government Act in 2000 very nearly made it possible for councils to meet in secret, until a huge backlash resulted in the Labour government backing down somewhat. But the principle of debating decisions in public did die – and local government is the worse for it.
Foundation hospitals, when they emerged, were all about handing more power locally to so-called experts. But no provision was built into legislation that enforced these hospital trusts, dealing with tens of thousands of patients and budgets running into the hundreds of millions, to meet in public, until the media kicked off.
So too academy schools found themselves free from local authority control – supposedly it makes for better education – but also exempt from the Freedom of Information Act, and hidden away from much of the scrutiny which schools under local authority control could expect.
Politicians always complain things take too much time, and they won’t let it happen on their watch. But doesn’t it strike you as odd that provisions to ensure public authorities spending public money are held accountable almost always seem to be forgotten about in the haste to speed things up?
The News Media Association picked up on this earlier this week, saying that the rights the media fought long and hard for need to preserved as powers move around. Too right. And in Birmingham, we can see why.
As I said at the start, actions speak louder than words. And this latest case in Birmingham encapsulates brilliantly the fact that when it comes to accountability, those who spend our money prefer it be on their terms, and their terms alone.