Officials working for Tory minister Eric Pickles have been accused of an extraordinary attempt to suppress internal government emails – on the grounds that publishing such correspondence could lead to unwelcome “political and media exposure”.
In a bizarre intervention, civil servants in Mr Pickles’ Department of Communities and Local Government claimed that they should be exempt from complying with a Freedom of Information request because of the risk that if they routinely had to release such documents they could cause embarrassment to ministers or officials. The officials added that the fact that the FOI request came from the Opposition should in itself count against disclosure, as it was likely to be used for political attacks.
But the attempt was stopped by the Information Commissioner, who ruled that the department must disclose the information – and could not discriminate against applicants.
Labour said it was “scandalous” that the Government was wasting public money on “desperately trying to avoid being transparent”. But the Conservatives accused the party of going on a “glorified fishing expedition” and insisted that ministers always followed “high ethical standards” in dealing with requests for information.
The row began after staff working for the shadow Communities Secretary, Hilary Benn, tried to obtain details of talks between ministers, advisers and officials about their handling of a previous FOI request to the department.
Labour suspected this might reveal evidence of deliberate political attempts to withhold information which could be damaging to the department. But rather than hand over the correspondence, DCLG tried to claim that to do so would inhibit “free and frank provision of advice and exchange of views” between ministers and officials.
In its evidence to the Information Commissioner, who has the power to arbitrate in such disputes, the department claimed that this was particularly the case since the request came from the Opposition.
But in his ruling the Commissioner rejected the department’s assertion that releasing the information could have a “chilling effect” on the willingness of ministers and officials to have frank discussions. And he added that there was a public interest in revealing the process by which FOI requests were dealt with – as it could ensure that proper processes were followed.
Brandon Lewis, minister for Local Government, said: “FOI is rightly applicant-blind, except when handling vexatious requests – and we believe this request was part of that pattern.”