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Home Office error reveals how FOI request handled

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Martin Rosenbaum | 08:45 UK time, Friday, 25 June 2010

The Home Office postponed an FOI release of research on drugs policy because it wanted "to avoid a focus on the gaps in the evidence base" on the effect of its strategy.

Officials also advised ministers that their decision on disclosure had to take into account the risk that the information could be used to criticise government policy.

Home Office civil servants have inadvertently revealed this to the BBC in a separate freedom-of-information response in which they left in material clearly intended for deletion.

The delayed disclosure involved the Drugs Value for Money Review, an analysis carried out in 2007 into the effectiveness of government spending on combating drug use. This was requested under freedom of information in early 2008 by Transform, a group which campaigns for drugs to be legalised under a system of regulation.

The report was eventually released [5.11MB PDF] in January this year, but until then the Home Office had been maintaining that publication was against the public interest. At first it refused completely, then it agreed in principle but argued that it wanted to wait until a related National Audit Office report was also ready.

The material accidentally sent to the BBC [204.79Kb PDF] includes a submission prepared for ministers in November 2009 on the handling of the Transform FOI request. This states [70.33Kb PDF]:

Transform's website is currently comparing the costs and benefits of current drug prohibitionist policy and drug control compared to legal regulation. They are likely to pick up areas of the report which highlight the difficulty in assessing VfM and that evaluation of programmes and initiatives are patchy. Withholding release of the report until the publication of the more detailed and current NAO study will help to avoid a focus on the gaps in the evidence base and evaluation of VfM identified by the earlier analysis.

And naturally when the report was published Transform did indeed pick up on what it saw as the gaps in evidence-based evaluation of Home Office drugs strategy. The National Audit Office study was issued in March, and it turned out that it too criticised the lack of an evaluative framework.

The civil service submission to ministers, which was copied to the permanent secretary David Normington, also suggested that the decision on whether to disclose the report should take into account the risk this would help Transform criticise government policy. It said [53.51Kb PDF]:

The release of the report entails the risk of Transform, or other supporters of legalisation, using information from the report to criticise the Government's drug policy, or to support their call for legalisation of drugs and the introduction of a regulated system of supply. These risks should be considered in reaching a decision on whether to release the report

The FOI application was made by Danny Kushlick from Transform, who told me: "Writing that down is fairly dumb. Sending it to you is even sillier."

He added:

"This revelation is outrageous. It would appear to show civil servants, from the permanent secretary down, breaking the spirit of the law, with the support of ministers. It shows the government withholding information for fear of being punished in the press. This fear meant that information was kept from the eyes of both the public and indeed parliament during the period that it was developing policy. The result is bad policy."

A Home Office spokesperson commented:

"We take our obligations under the Freedom of Information Act very seriously. In this case, the report was originally exempted because it would have been likely to prejudice the effective conduct of public affairs.
 
"The Freedom of Information Act is applicant blind. Regardless of who the applicant is, all requests for information are assessed and answered in the same manner.
 
"It is the duty of Government to properly explain its policies and so we identify at an early stage subjects likely to be of wider public interest. This means we can answer any additional questions from the public or the media in a considered, accurate and timely way.
 
"Similarly, FOI requests from the media or pressure groups will often attract significant wider attention, more so than requests from members of the public for example, and so they are flagged as well. This ensures the department can properly and promptly answer any follow-up questions when the information appears on the website."

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