Wednesday 25 October 2017

Jo Johnson might have landed his Tory pal Chris Heaton-Harris in even more trouble

After the Tory whip Chris Heaton-Harris triggered condemnation from universities, students, opposition parties, pro- and anti- Brexit campaigners, and free speech activists alike with his McCarthyite inquisition into what universities are teaching about Brexit, the Tory party wheeled out the Universities minister Jo Johnson to make a series of excuses.

Heaton-Harris had sent out letters to every university in the UK requesting a list of all professors teaching about Brexit, and copies of all Brexit-related course materials.

The important thing to note is that he used parliamentary resources to send out these letters, and he made his request for this information in a professional capacity, not a personal one.

Jo Johnson's attempted excuse for Heaton-Harris' behaviour was quite extraordinary: "He was pursuing inquiries of his own which may in time, I think, lead to a book on these questions".

Instead of getting his Tory colleague out of trouble, this attempted excuse is absolutely scandalous. 

If it is true that Heaton-Harris sent out these letters in order to conduct research for a personal book project, then he's massively overstepped the line by abusing his position as a member of government, and by using parliamentary resources for his own personal benefit.

If you or I wrote to every university in the country in a personal capacity asking for a list of staff teaching about Brexit, and free copies of all their course material on the subject so that we could write a book about our findings, we'd obviously get very short shrift, but according to Jo Johnson's version of events, Heaton-Harris decided to use his position as a government minister to ask for this information.

In trying to make an excuse for his Tory colleague's behaviour Jo Johnson has publicly accused him of attempting to obtain information by deception. Johnson has inadvertently accused Heaton-Harris of using his position as an MP for the governing party in order to seek access to information that he would clearly not have been able to obtain if he had asked in a personal capacity. 

There couldn't really be a clearer example of a politician seeking to abuse their position in government than this. 

The idea of a government minister interfering in the independence of our universities by demanding lists of lecturers, and free copies of course materials is bad enough in its own right. But if it turns out that Heaton-Harris only made this McCarthyite inquisition because he was abusing his position as a member of the government in order to try to harvest information for a personal project, then he needs to be severely punished.

There now needs to be a proper investigation into what the purpose of the Heaton-Harris inquisition was.

If Heaton-Harris was sending the letters on behalf of a government department as was originally suspected, we need to know which department, and what they wanted the information for. And if he was indeed misusing parliamentary resources and abusing his position in government in order to obtain the kind of information he would not have been able to obtain in a personal capacity, he clearly needs to be held to account for his actions.

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