A government department spent thousands of pounds attempting to suppress emails showing that civil servants believed their minister may have misled MPs.
Officials in the Department for Communities and Local Government battled for nearly a year to prevent the release of internal correspondence relating to the former Housing minister Grant Shapps.
When they were finally forced to back down by the Information Commissioner and release the emails they showed that civil servants believed Mr Shapps, who is now Conservative Party chairman, had made inaccurate statements about the number of affordable homes being built in Britain.
Sources suggest the cost in staff time by both the department and the publicly funded Information Commission’s Office who had to adjudicate on the matter would have run to several thousands of pounds.
The dispute started after Mr Shapps claimed in the House of Commons that the Coalition would build more affordable homes in five years than the Labour government had done in the 13 years between 1997 and 2010.
Labour was furious, claiming Mr Shapps had made up the statistics and complained to Andrew Dilnot, the head of the UK Statistics Authority.
In his response Mr Dilnot, in part, backed Labour’s contention and said that “as so often in the public debate” Mr Shapps may have subjected the statistics to “selective use”.
But that was not enough for Labour who then put in a Freedom of Information request asking for the internal correspondence within Mr Shapps’ department over his use of statistics.
But the department claimed it could not release the information on the grounds that it related to the “formulation of government policy” and could “prejudice effective conduct of public affairs”.
Labour appealed first to the department and then, when that was ineffective, to the Information Commissioner’s Office who, 10 months after the initial request, finally found in the party’s favour.
But what the emails reveal is that senior civil servants in the department had reservations about Mr Shapps’ grasp of the facts.
In one an official writes: “This is all a bit complicated but I don’t feel we can offer a strong rebuttal on this.”
Another goes on to admit that in fact Labour had built more than 500,000 affordable homes in office rather than the 270,000 Mr Shapps claimed.
Another email shows Mr Shapps was advised not to use the inaccurate figures again.
Last night Labour said the Government’s reluctance to release the emails was more about sparing Mr Shapps’ blushes than preserving any pressing national interest by preventing their publication.
“Eric Pickles has gone to extraordinary lengths to try and hide his department’s exchanges about the misrepresentation of the housing crisis,” said Hilary Benn, the shadow Communities Secretary.
“Instead of wasting taxpayers’ money to try and avoid his duty to come clean he should have been working to stop the drastic decline in affordable housing.”
But Mr Shapps himself was unrepentant. “The Labour Party is clearly rattled that this Government is building more affordable housing, and don’t want to talk about their appalling record when in government,” he said.
Rewriting history: Grant’s gaffes
In 2010 Mr Shapps said the Office for National Statistics found private-sector rents had fallen by 5 per cent last year while the amount local authorities paid to private landlords had risen by 3 per cent. But the ONS does not collect such statistics and the figures he quoted came from findaproperty.com.
This week the Methodist Church accused Mr Shapps of wrongly claiming – to prove the need for welfare reform – that 878,300 people had dropped claims to incapacity benefit “rather than completing a medical test”.
The Church said the figure referred to every claim that had ended since 2008, and was not connected to the test.