Parliament is in recess at the moment (which explains why its been relatively quiet around here), but some select committees have been meeting to review the Estimates of Appropriation in the recent budget. A pile of reports on these was released in the last couple of days (list here), and I've been tipped to some rather interesting criticism in the review of Vote Foreign Affairs and Trade and Vote Official Development Assistance [PDF]. Near the end of the report, there is a note on "supply of information to select committees". Here's what it says:
Some members noted that papers released to the committee in relation to questions filed as part of the estimates process were supplied stamped “Released under the Official Information Act”, carrying deletions citing various sections of the Act as grounds for withholding. This shows a serious misunderstanding of the constitutional obligations of departments of State to Parliament and its select committees. Material sought by select committees as part of the estimates examination is not sought under the Official Information Act. Such material is supplied as part of the department’s obligation to satisfy the committee on the appropriateness of the Estimates for the year. Any sensitive material which the department wishes to withhold should be identified to the committee and the reasons for the requested confidentiality provided. It is then up to the committee to determine whether to pursue the request, to modify the request, or to seek the information on terms that will meet the department’s concerns. We are concerned that such a substantial and senior agency of state such as the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade does not understand its obligations to Parliament.
That's a rather mild way of pointing out a serious constitutional issue. Our system of government works on the basis that government departments are accountable to Parliament, which is in turn accountable to the public. Withholding information from a select committee breaks this chain of accountability, and makes it impossible for the public's elected representatives to exercise proper oversight over how the public's money is being spent. MFAT needs to be held to account for this attempt to evade oversight, by the Privileges Committee if necessary.
And while we're on the subject, the report notes that our Official Development Assistance is still only 0.27% of GNI (well short of the 0.7% UN target), and that MFAT expects it to increase to a mere 0.35% of GNI by 2010. We've promised to increase it to 0.7% as part of the UN Millenium Development Goals - but they're not showing much commitment. Instead, like many of the promises made to the poor recently, this one seems like it will simply be quietly forgotten...