Well over a year ago now, on 31 May 2012, I sent a Freedom of Information request to the Cabinet Office (CO) requiring the following information:
- 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.
- How any such coaching or preparation was funded.
- The cost of any such training or coaching.
- By whom the training/coaching was carried out.
It was abundantly clear, from the carefully-structured responses of Cameron and his ministers and aides to the questions put to them during their testimony to the Leveson inquiry into press standards/behaviour and their links to Newscorp and others, that they had been coached about how to answer – what to say, and what to conveniently ‘forget’, in order to avoid incriminating themselves under oath.
Such coaching is illegal under UK law, as the government itself admits – but even if it were legal, it is unquestionably not legitimate for the public purse to pay for government politicians to get themselves out of legal and political trouble for things they should never have been doing. So I wanted to know exactly what coaching had been given, who by and to whom, and who funded it.
I knew when I sent the request that it wouldn’t be one that the CO would be happy to receive. I didn’t know quite how far it would go to avoid answering.
On 2 July I received a response. Kind of. It was a flat denial by the CO’s ‘Head of Knowledge and Information Management’ that the information was held at all:
I am writing to advise you that following a search of our paper and electronic records, I have established that the information you requested is not held by the Cabinet Office.
If my 3 July to that answer sounds scornful, that’s because it was:
The careful wording of this response..suggests deliberate evasion.
Coaching (or ‘refamiliarisation’ to use the PM’s laughable term for it) cannot possibly be organised without SOMEONE in government having full records of who received it, who provided it, and who paid for it.
I require your response by return confirming who in fact does have this information – and then I require it to be provided immediately, under the original FOI request, and not under a further 20-day period.
In the end, the CO didn’t take another 20-day period or calendar month, the period allowed by the FOI Act for responding to requests. It took almost 7 weeks, and only arrived over 2 weeks after I’d sent a reminder to the government that it was not meeting its legal obligations.
The response, when it finally came, was completely different to the initial one:
The short version, in plain English:
We do have the information we said we didn’t have – but now we’re going to use a different excuse for not giving it to you. We don’t think it will be in the public interest to disclose this information that you have legally asked for – we want to withhold it until we think it’s the best time to release it. But we have promised to do it as soon as part 1 of the inquiry is complete.
Now, consider for a moment how it might be in the public interest for the government to withhold information that could only be damaging to… the government. Consider a little longer. A bit more. Good.
Thought of any way that this information might be against the public interest? Nope, me neither.
But that’s what the government claimed. In my response, I aimed again for scorn – and derision. That response definitely merited derision.
I didn’t hear anything further until almost 3 months later, on 5 November, in spite of reminders. What I did get surprised even me, someone who is rarely surprised by anything this government will say or do.
I won’t reproduce the full wording here, because it would take too much space, but if you want to view it in full you can do so here. But I will paraphrase:
When we said we did have information after all, it was because we were including ‘legal assistance’ to witnesses in the definition of coaching or preparation. When we said we didn’t have the information, it’s because we were excluding it.
We’ve now decided we were right in the first place. Legal assistance doesn’t count as ‘coaching’ or ‘preparation’ – so we don’t have any information to give you.
Sorry for any confusion. (!!!)
This weasel-thinking was so staggering that I immediately complained to the Information Commissioner’s Office. The ICO takes a long time to answer complaints, and it was January before I received notice of any progress apart from the CO trying to claim it had ‘resolved the matter informally’ – and March of this year before I received the ICO’s decision.
The ICO ruled that the CO was not fulfilling its public duty to make a straightforward interpretation of the meaning of requests, and that ‘coaching or preparation in any way’ certainly includes ‘legal assistance’. However, it only required the CO to give a new response – and gave it 35 working days, or about 2 calendar months, to do so.
That two-month period turned into 4 months. I wish I could say it was worth the wait:
The Treasury Solicitor’s Department provided Government witnesses with legal assistance. The Government is committed to publishing the costs of such assistance, and will do so in due course. This information is therefore exempt under s22. In line with the terms of this exemption in the Act, I have also considered whether it would
be in the public interest to provide you with the information ahead of publication, despite the exemption being applicable. In this case, I have concluded that the public interest favours withholding the information.
When assessing whether or not it was in the public interest to disclose the information to you, I took into account the following factors: releasing the information to you would increase transparency around the Leveson Inquiry, which would be in the public interest, however it is also in the public interest to ensure that the publication of information of this kind is a properly planned and managed process, to ensure that the data is accurate once it is placed into the public domain; and, given that a commitment was made to Parliament to provide the information, that the information should be presented to the House of Commons in the first instance. I have concluded that, on balance, the public interest is better served by withholding this information under section 22 of the FoIA at this time.
In other words, the CO has gone back to exactly the same defence as before it was told by the ICO that it had not fulfilled its duty.
The CO admits that transparency – which the government boasts about when it is convenient, even when it is patently untrue – would be served by releasing the information, and that this would be in the public interest.
However, it argues that ‘properly managing’ the release – which is only of benefit politically to the government – is even more in the public interest. In the minds of this government, anything that is in its interest is also in the public interest. Astonishing arrogance once again.
Even more laughable is the reason given for wanting to ‘properly manage’ the release – to ensure that the information is correct when released. This information was requested more than a year ago – the government has had more than enough time to check, double-check, triple-check and then check again that the information is correct.
Note too how ‘after part 1 of the inquiry’ has subtly but crucially transformed into ‘in due course’. When does Leveson consider that ‘part 1’ was completed? His inquiry website tells us:
Lord Justice Leveson published his Report on Part 1 of the Inquiry on 29 November 2012.
Over a year ago, the CO withheld the information about preparation for testimony on the basis that it would be published once the first phase of the inquiry was completed – which more than 8 months ago.
Yet still the government obfuscates, ignoring the ICO’s decision and ‘moving the goalposts’ to allow it to continue to withhold information whose release it confesses would serve transparency and the public interest.
Whatever the details, this information must be deeply incriminating indeed for the Cabinet Office to go to such lengths of deceit, dissembling and evasion to – not to mention breaking the law about Freedom of Information requests – to keep it out of the public view.
I will be reviving the complaint with the ICO, but the process will no doubt drag on for some time yet – and the government has ‘form’ for completely ignoring the ICO and even High Court Judges to withhold politically-damaging information.
So don’t hold your breath – but the mere fact that the government is twisting itself into such knots to hide it shows that the information must clearly incriminate the government for doing something it shouldn’t have.
Which is pretty much the result of the whole Leveson inquiry, come to think of it.