In the time that I’ve been using the FOI Act to try to uncover government misdeeds, misinformation and downright lies, I’ve seen some very varied responses, but this just about takes the biscuit. At the end of May, I submitted a request for the following information to the Prime Minister’s (cabinet) office:
1) Whether ministers, special advisors, civil servants and other government personnel were coached or in any way given preparation for their testimony to the Leveson enquiry.
2) How any such coaching or preparation was funded.
3) The cost of any such training or coaching.
4) By whom the training/coaching was carried out.
Since then, question one has been answered via a different route, as the government has acknowledged publicly that there was preparation for ministers and others for their testimony to the Leveson enquiry. However, the remaining 3 questions remain very much unanswered.
The first reply I got from the Cabinet office refused the request on the grounds that no such information was held. Since it’s clearly inconceivable that such coaching could take place without anyone in government knowing it, I followed the necessary procedure by requesting an internal review. The response I received to that, just today, left my mouth hanging open in disbelief - not at the fact that the request was still refused, but at the staggering audacity and arrogance of the reasons given. The relevant portions are below – the PDF response document was protected so that I can’t copy and paste the text, but I can still take snapshots and include them here as images.
First, the government admits that its first response was ‘incorrect’ (since there’s no way they didn’t know they had this information, it’s less incorrect than it is a lie, but there you go!):
Next, it gives the reason why it’s going to withhold the information anyway:
So, the government recognises that the information is a matter of public interest. It recognises that releasing the information would help to improve public confidence in government. But it considers that giving it to me would ‘undermine the well-established and orderly future publication of information’. In spite of the fact that the costs, nature and recipients of publicly-funded coaching for sworn testimony so that ministers and others will do the least damage to the government has no relevance whatsoever to the conclusions of the Leveson enquiry, somehow telling us now would prejudice the communication of the outcome.
So, on to the conclusion:
So, the reason that the government wants to refuse to release the information until it can be released in an ‘orderly’ way is not:
a) So that the information can be ‘buried’ by being released at a time of the government’s choosing when some other major news event will ensure that it receives little or no media attention.
b) So that the information can be spun and media-managed to minimise public outrage and ensuing political damage to the Conservative party.
c) So that it can be sat on until public interest has waned or it’s the economic situation has improved and we’re all in a better mood.
d) Any other venal, self-serving reason you can think of.
No, it’s because it’s in our best interest not to know what the information is until the government decides it’s time.
Arent we lucky to have a government that cares so much about us?!
I have, of course, referred this to the Information Commissioner for judgment. The text (bold emphasis just added for this blog) of the complaint is below: