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Thomas and Maude stage open info Commons love-in

The real reason behind Watson .gov phone obsession?

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The Westminster love-in reached critical proportions this week, threatening to engulf Labour tech specialist Tom Watson.

Watson apparently has been doing his damndest to embarrass the new administration by asking questions such as how many plasma and LCD TVs ministers have in their offices. The answer, it would seem, is a fair few LCDs. But the replies generally add that they were there when the ministers moved - ie they're only there because the former New Labour ministers like to watch The Thick of It at work.

On Wednesday Watson launched an attack from another angle, asking Cabinet Office Minister Francis Maude, "What plans he has to publish non-personal data held by Government departments."

Maude pointed out the government had already published a variety of data, "including the Treasury COINS-combined online information system-database, MRSA and C. difficile weekly infection rates for each hospital, and details of the salaries of 172 civil servants who are paid more than the Prime Minister."

He added, "We will also give the public a right to data so that people can obtain the Government-held data sets that they want."

Watson would have already known all of this, though now he probably has to rely a little more on Whitehall's RSS feeds.

Either way, he immediately declared, "The right hon. Gentleman is doing a great job and I hope he gets the support of my Front-Bench team in accelerating the programme of releasing public sector data."

But, he added, "does he accept that the Government cannot be selective about those data? They cannot print 172 civil servants' salaries without telling me what [Tory comms chief] Andy Coulson is paid."

All in good time, replied Maude, who continued. "If I may, I should like to pay tribute to the hon. Gentleman. When he was a Minister in the Cabinet Office, he pursued the agenda of data transparency with admirable vigour, and I suspect he was somewhat frustrated by the lack of progress that it was possible for him to make.

"I look forward to working closely with him as we jointly pursue this agenda in the public interest."

Was that flirting? Maybe what Maude is saying is "Call me". Which would explain why Watson spends so much time asking how mobile phones have been issued to the new ToryDem ministers. ®

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