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May I publish a letter from my MP without permission?

A friend of mine recently contacted her MP on a matter of use or misuse of statistics in promotional material and received a reply. She wants to write a blog post about the experience. The fairest way to do this would be to quote the MP’s response, since this avoids hearsay and anecdote. Is she free to do this? I have an answer to this question and I share this below.

I googled a lot, to no avail, and asked on Twitter.

Help: If I write to my MP is it okay to publish the reply in full with comment on a blog? URL to reputable source yes or no appreciated.

The answers were unclear. Clearly a private letter from a private individual is copyright of that individual so permission must be sought, and this was the view taken by several respondents. However, a letter written on company time might result in copyright owned by the employer. In this case, the MP works for the state and has their time paid by the taxpayer to perform the public function of representing constituent’s issues. Then, is the constituent free to publish the letter without seeking permission? This was the view of several other respondents.

There are also issues of privacy, but if the MP has revealed nothing private and the constituent is happy is that okay?

Or perhaps there is a public interest defence? 

Happily, @singinghedgehog suggested that I ask the House of Commons Information Office. I sent the following query.

If a constituent writes to their MP and their MP replies, are they free to publish the response in a blog post?
I have been told that the contents of the email are private and the constituent should write back asking for permission. I have also been told that no permission is needed as the MP’s time is publicly funded so as long as the constituent is happy they may make the contents public.
Thank you for your help in clarifying this matter. As I found an answer hard to find, may I publish your response on my blog?
Thank you,

Notice how I cleverly ask “may I publish your response on my blog?”? They didn’t reply to that bit! So I emailed back asking if this was okay and got this response (I’ve taken off the name of the respondent because there is no need to include this):

Dear Peter,
There are no restrictions on publishing emails from this office as we are a public information service.
I hope that this is useful. 

So here is the original response (I’ve highlighted the key bit):

Dear Peter,
Thank you for your email.
I have spoken to our legal services team and they have given the following response to your question:
Letters written by Members
A Member has copyright in letters that s/he has written. Therefore, the relevant Member’s consent must be obtained before their letter can be published.
Letters written by constituents
Constituents are advised that, if they send a letter to their MP, it may be protected by qualified privilege for the purposes of defamation. However, this protection is likely to be lost if a constituent puts their letter in the public domain.
I hope that this is useful to you. 

So my friend must ask permission. Better, she should have asked permission in her original letter. I don’t think the second part applies (though I haven’t seen the correspondence in question) but it is interesting to note.

This surprised me because the two seemingly most reputable responses – one originating with someone who works for an MP and one secret “reputable source” (“I’d tell you who but I’d have to kill us both”) – both gave the opposite answer. So I’m publishing this here in the hope it is useful to someone.

Mathematics Matters – a Parliamentary view of the importance of mathematics

A new post on the Institute of Mathematics and its Applications (IMA) blog by Noel-Ann Bradshaw outlines a seminar “Mathematics Matters” on 15th March 2012, hosted by the Parliamentary and Scientific Committee in collaboration with the Council for Mathematical Sciences with the aim “to promote the role played by mathematics and mathematicians in society”.

Noel-Ann notes that Prof. Sir Adrian Smith said the government is “well aware of the importance of mathematics and the part it plays in key national and strategic priorities” and says that “it was pointed out that whilst maths is becoming a more popular subject to study at university we are still not producing enough graduates to satisfy demand”.

The blog posts gives a description of talks and discussion points from the day, which included talks on media use of statistics, cryptography, epidemiology, imaging and a discussion of the issues affecting mathematics.

Read the full details over on the IMA blog “IMAMATHSBLOGGER”: Mathematics Matters – a crucial contribution to the country’s economy.

No pardon for Turing

A government minister in the Ministry of Justice, Lord McNally, in response to a question from Lord Sharkey on Thursday 2nd February 2012 made a statement in the House or Lords that “a posthumous pardon [for Alan Turing] was not considered appropriate”.

The statement acknowledges that the offence of which Turing was convicted “now seems both cruel and absurd” but says that Turing “would have known that his offence was against the law and that he would be prosecuted”. This says that the:

long-standing policy has been to accept that such convictions took place and, rather than trying to alter the historical context and to put right what cannot be put right, ensure instead that we never again return to those times.

Back when the pardon petition was launched in November 2011, John Graham-Cumming, the man responsible for the Turing apology petition in 2009, wrote a blog post explaining why he did not support the pardon petition: Why I’m not supporting the campaign for a pardon for Alan Turing (26 November 2011).

On the Math/Maths Podcast this week Samuel Hansen spoke convincingly about a pardon, above an apology, as having the effect of removing the conviction, not merely apologising for it. Graham-Cumming points to the Protection of Freedoms bill, currently passing through the House of Lords, which:

specifically allows for the disregarding of convictions under the old law that was used against Turing. Once disregarded the law causes their convictions to be deleted. It’s not quite the same thing as a pardon, but its effect is to lift the burden of a criminal record from these living men [those who are “still hurt by that law”].

Alan Turing Pardon: Early Day Motion

John Leech MP, on his blog, reports having submitted an Early Day Motion (EDM) to Parliament calling for a pardon for Alan Turing.

The Parliament website defines EDMs:

Early day motions (EDMs) are tabled by MPs to publicise a particular event or cause, and to gather support among MPs for that event or cause. MPs demonstrate their support for an EDM by signing the motion.

Gordon Brown issued a Government apology in 2009 for the way Turing was treated following a conviction of gross indecency in 1952. A pardon would go further. In his blog post, John Leech reports that the EDM is “prompted by a petition on the Downing Street web page”. This e-petition calls for a pardon to go “some way to healing” the damage caused by the circumstances of Turing’s death, in recognition of the work Turing did, and to “act as an apology to many of the other gay men, not as well known as Alan Turing, who were subjected to these laws”.

The full text of the petition is available on the Downing Street website and the full text of the EDM is on John Leech’s blog.

John Leech MP: Alan Turing should be pardoned (31 January 2012).
e-petition: Grant a pardon to Alan Turing.
BBC: PM apology after Turing petition (2009).
Parliament: Early Day Motions.