More Tory double-speak to evade FOI: Leveson

With Frances Maude as Cabinet Secretary, I really shouldn’t be surprised. However, the lengths of opacity and evasiveness to which the Cabinet Office has gone to avoid answering my Freedom of Information (FOI) Act request concerning the cost of preparation for government officials for testimony to the Leveson enquiry continues to succeed in making my jaw drop.

FOI requests are supposed to be answered within 20 working days of receipt. Back in May, I asked the Cabinet Office the following questions:

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.

The Cabinet Office responded in early July that it had searched its electronic and paper records and held no information relevant to my request. I wrote back querying the response, as the careful wording made me suspicious and I couldn’t believe that such preparation (which Cameron had laughably called ‘refamiliarisation’) could take place with no government record of it.

The next response – not sent until more than 6 weeks after my objection – stated that the original response had been incorrect. Information was held, but was being withheld under a ‘Section 22‘ exemption – an exemption for information ‘intended for future publication’.

The reason given for this was that the Cabinet Office considered that the public interest was best served by allowing the government to decide when to release the information:


The letter concludes:

“Taking into account all the circumstances of the case, I have determined that the balance of the public interest favours withholding this information.

In other words, the government want to manage the release of the information in the interests of the Conservative Party. Since party political interests shouldn’t decide whether or when information is released under the FOI Act, I challenged this decision, too.

I’ve now received a further response from the Cabinet Office, in which it reverts to its position that it doesn’t have the information in the first place:


To summarise the response, in case you find the language used hard going: “We’ve now decided that ‘legal assistance’ for the Leveson enquiry doesn’t count as ‘preparation of any kind’, so we’re reverting to our initial response that we don’t have any relevant information.”

Can any reasonable, sane, honest interpretation of my request:

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.

conclude that ‘in any way given preparation’ would not include ‘legal advice from the Treasury Solicitors‘?

No, I don’t think so, either.

This latest, completely unsatisfactory response arrived more than 5 months after my initial FOI request. At a maximum, the FOI Act allows 20 working days (around 1 calendar month) for the initial response, and another 20 working days for the internal review if the enquirer does not accept the initial response. The Cabinet Office is over 3 months late with its response – and has still not provided a meaningful answer.

I had already complained to the Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) about the handling of this request, stating my belief that the Cabinet Office is trying to delay providing a proper response until the Leveson enquiry publishes its findings and it suits the government to manage the release of the information in a way that minimises damage to the Tory party – ideally to bury it on a heavy news day to minimise the attention it receives. I’ve now written again, reiterating that belief and asking for an immediate resolution so that the government doesn’t get its wish by default because of a drawn-out complaints process.

Without question, there is an absolute public interest in knowing how ministers and others were prepared for their testimony to the Leveson enquiry – something which the Prime Minister has confirmed happened, albeit in euphemistic language, in spite of the Cabinet Office’s denial.

There is also an overriding public interest in knowing who paid for this preparation and how much it cost. If the PM, Jeremy Hunt et all want legal help in deciding which questions they had to answer and which ones they could choose to have amnesia about, that’s their prerogative – but it’s not something the tax-payer should be funding. Our money should not be used to pay to get them off the hook for their misdeeds and corruption.

Without question, the government has much to hide with regard to its dealings with News International etc, and the evasive, amnesiac answers given by ministers to the Leveson enquiry leave no doubt about that. Its evasiveness and inconsistency in answering a straightforward FOI request about the preparation it gave to witnesses for their testimony, what this preparation cost and how it was funded show that the government also has plenty to hide in this area.

If their lips are moving, they’re almost certainly lying.

The correspondence relating to this FOI request is in the public domain, so if you’re interested to read the thing in full, have a good attention span and a strong stomach, you can so so here.

2 responses to “More Tory double-speak to evade FOI: Leveson

  1. Unfortunately the ICO is so chronically understaffed you will not have an answer any-time soon and even if they find in your favour it’ll be so far down the road as to be much less relevant or will be vetoed by the AG. The Cabinet Office’s FOI laxity is legendary, especially ironic since Maude is leading the transparency agenda in government.

    • I know. Still have to try, though – and I did raise the issue with the ICO that a slow response from them would allow the CO to get its way by default. Let’s see what happens!

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