Tuesday, 7 June 2011

Register of Members Interests Online?

Deputy Bob Hill is bringing a proposition to ensure the Register of Members Interests is online. The Privileges and Procedures Committee, as might be expected, have decided that confidentiality is a key issue here, and will not support the proposition. They do not seem very effective where transparency is concerned, or even common sense.

The reason for this is that while Jersey's register of members interests is not online, it is in the public domain - anyone can go to Mourier House, and look at the ring binder, and make any notes of interests that they want (or simply memorise a particular interest). There is no confidentiality; that's what it is supposed to be about, not having special financial interests which may influence a member's voting, and which are concealed from the general public.

That is, after all, how the JEP revealed that Senator Terry Le Main's links to an individual he was supporting over a breach of Housing regulations, where there was clearly a special interest. As the JEP reported:

HOUSING Minister Terry Le Main has resigned from office after links going back decades emerged between him and the property developer he tried to get cleared of Housing Law breaches. Senator Le Main tendered his resignation as a minister last night after being confronted by the press over the fact that developer Frank Venton has 'sponsored' his election campaigns since 1978. The Senator had claimed that the two were not friends, that he had done nothing wrong and that he had nothing to hide. But this morning he issued a statement announcing his resignation, although admitting no wrongdoing, and referring to 'media and frenzied allegations'. (1)

This was obtained by the JEP and Channel Television by looking at the register of members interests. (In fact, they probably have a copy on their files.) The CTV report makes this quite clear:

The former Housing Minister denied the friendship, but Channel Television has learnt that Mr Venton's company has been the senator's political sponsor for more than 30 years. In the senator's Statement of Interests Form, he wrote: "I have had some sponsoring on election brochures, posters and advertising costs, as I did in the 2005 election campaign. This sponsor is Vision Advertising & Design." The Director and Creative Director, was Frank Venton. (2)

So the information was in the public domain, and made available both in the news reports and online - the online reports are still in place. Because the information was already in the public domain, there should not have been a breach of Data Protection, after all, anyone could have seen that data, and told anyone else.

I've not checked with the Jersey Law, but would have thought it was on the same lines as the UK one - with regard to Data Protection, as EU laws have to be similar, and Jersey has to follow suite for the free flow of data to be permitted across the EU from here.

7.12 What is the position in relation to personal data already in the public domain?

Section 1 (4) (b) of the Data Protection Acts provides that the Acts do not apply to personal data consisting of information that the person keeping the data is required by law to make available to the public. A key point here is that the exemption from data protection requirements only relates to the information in the hands of those public bodies that are obliged to make it available.

The UK Commissioner sites this with relation to a case study (Annual Report 1998), Case Study 6, and notes:

In considering this matter, I had regard to section 1(4)(b) of the Data Protection Act, 1988, which provides that the Act does not apply to "personal data consisting of information that the person keeping the data is required by law to make available to the public". This provision would mean that, if the names and addresses of the local authority's housing loan account holders were required by law to be made available to the public, then the disclosure of such data by the local authority could not have been in breach of the Data Protection Act.

Now, as I noted,  the Register of Members Interests is available to any member of the public, so hence is in the public domain. If someone took down details of a members interests and published that online - which is effectively what Channel Television did -  I cannot see that would be breaking the Data Protection Law, because it is "personal data consisting of information that the person keeping the data is required by law to make available to the public"; moreover, as the original intent was to make members interests available to the public in the public domain, merely transcribing it would not change the purpose for which it was originally intended.

It is not a problem with Guernsey, the UK, and most other jurisdictions because the data in question is both in the public domain AND online, but this would seem to be a loophole that, if the data was not made available online, it could be done so by a private individual. Perhaps the Data Protection Commissioner could give her opinion, annotated with an explanation of how that fits the existing law, and how Channel Television clearly did not breach any Data Protection Laws - there was absolutely no criticism from her of their reporting of the matter.

Mind you, you might just end up with dawn raids on your house, if you put it online, and with seven or eight police sent round to act as "the heavy mob". On the other hand, if it was Emma Martins in person to complain, I might invite her to breakfast!

(1) http://www.thisisjersey.com/2010/06/02/minister-resigns
(2) http://www.channelonline.tv/channelonline_jerseynews/displayarticle.asp?id=489224


voiceforchildren said...


Juliette Gallichan doesn't even want her own Committee to be INFORMED Let alone the bl--dy public!

Rob Kent said...

Why should they object to it being searchable and online other than they don't want to make it too easy for people to find this stuff out?

In every other field of Internet endeavour, the aim is to make you information the most accessible and get yourself to the top of the search rankings.

But not when it comes to knowing which pies your politicians have their fingers in, it seems.

TonyTheProf said...

The one matter I would agree with on restrictions is politicians spouse/partner. They are private individuals, who have not stood for election, and their financial interests (while they may be relevant) should not be online.

Otherwise it could become ridiculous - I may be in the States and have a brother / sister / mother / father / son / daughter who has an financial interest in something, and their affairs should certainly not be online. Where would you stop?

Rob Kent said...

Is the relatives' information in the hardcopy register of members interests? If so, it should be online. If something is in the public domain, it is farcical to pretend that it isn't by putting it somewhere difficult to find.

However, I'm not sure I agree with your reservations about that. A husband and wife are a legal entity financially. If my wife is director of XYZ Property Developers and I am the Minister for Planning, there is a legitimate interest in knowing that. I'm not sure that children or other relatives should be involved though, because any favours made in that direction would come under the heading of standard graft or nepotism and are for the 'accredited' media and public to discover.

There is way too much government secrecy in the UK and Jersey. There are very few things that need to be secret. It is just a habit that powerful institutions have developed over centuries and it may take a while to change it. WikiLeaks has had a good effect in that regard. Governments behave as if the public are fools and cannot be trusted with information, when in fact, the reverse is true - a badly informed and ill-judged action by a government will potentially affect the well-being of thousands of people.

In the public there is a vast reservoir of educated and intelligent people. Politicians and civil servants often have a narrow knowledge and are subject to internal pressures that stop them seeing the big picture. The sooner we have full transparency, scrutiny and Open Source government, the better political systems we will have. And maybe we will be able to stop our politicians making stupid mistakes and endangering our future and present well-being.

And if we can stop them being corrupted in the meantime, that is a laudable side-effect.

TonyTheProf said...

Not in Jersey, but the UK Register (online) does in special cases.

James said...

@Rob Kent @1023: The reason they don't want it to be searchable and online is that if it were, you or I or anyone else could do the analysis on it.

After all, we might find data from other sources that the States was unaware of and get a better view of what the b*gg*rs are really up to, and that would never do.

The trouble in this island is that there are dozens of ways in which influence could be applied outwith that - church connections, Masonic lodges, parish halls. And you only have to look at who Sen Shenton's father was... and who Dep Pryke's mother was... to see that keeping it in the family is a reality. That's why transparency (in the old UK Civil Service formulation that was drummed into me: "it must be above board and be seen to be above board") matters so much - and I can only assume that that is why certain States members are fighting it so much.