Protecting individual privacy is, to my mind, fundamental to a free society. Without privacy and the opportunity to have personal possessions, the state is all powerful. Too often, we allow the public sphere to expand, eroding personal privacy and hence freedom.
There is a balance to be drawn between the public and private, between the state’s right to interfere and the individual’s right to be left alone, as well as between the freedom of the press and the right to privacy. What is in the public interest is not the same as what interests the public. We are in danger of getting the balance out of kilter.
One recent example of what amounts to a casual erosion of privacy is to be found in the decision of the House of Commons to require MPs who have other jobs to declare how much they earn from them and how much time they devote to them. This has been justified on the grounds that constituents have a right to know what their MP is earning in addition to their MPs’ salaries. This is offered as if it self-evidently true. It is no such thing. It is complete nonsense. There is an argument that MPs should not have second jobs, but that is a separate argument. So long as they are able to take on second jobs, then – if there is no conflict of interest – the income is a private matter. Even if constituents had a right to know, there is no way of confining the information to constituents: it becomes a matter of public record. Why? The job of an MP may be full-time in employment terms but not in a literal sense. The MP is not paid to be on-call 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Each MP is entitled to time of their own. Whether they give that time to being with the family, taking on other work (as a dentist, special constable, member of the TA), pursuing sport, or relaxing is a matter for them. It is not for the state to tell them what to do with that time nor to require them to reveal what they earn that is unrelated to their service as an MP. If the MP is not able to do the work expected of them by constituents, there are mechanisms in place for dealing with the matter: the local party, the scrutiny of one’s political opponents, and the prospect of being denied re-election.
We need to be far more vigilant in the protection of privacy. I know there is the argument that requiring MPs to declare second jobs, the hours worked and the income derived will discourage some people from standing for Parliament and is already resulting in some MPs deciding not to seek re-election. That is an important argument but to my mind is secondary to the important principle involved. If an MP has an income that does not derive from the fact they are an MP, the Inland Revenue has a right to know what it is. No one else does.