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Critical public interest

Mark Easton | 17:47 UK time, Friday, 25 June 2010

Democracy only works if you have well-informed public debate. So why did senior civil servants (and a Labour minister) believe it was legitimate to consider withholding official information simply because it might be used to criticise government policy?

The extraordinary insight into how some Whitehall officials think the Freedom of Information Act should operate is revealed in documents inadvertently sent to my BBC colleague Martin Rosenbaum and published on his blog today.

In advice sent to Vernon Coaker when he was a Home Office minister in 2009, a civil servant warns of the dangers of releasing unpublished research on whether drugs policy represented good value for money. He writes:

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

This seems to be run entirely counter to the principles underpinning the Freedom of Information Act.

As the Information Commission states in his introduction to the legislation, a factor that would "encourage the disclosure of information" is that it would "allow a more informed debate of issues under consideration by the Government".

Parliament did not design this legislation in order that ministers could avoid criticism of their policies. Quite the reverse. One of its fundamental concerns is, as the commissioner says, "furthering the understanding of and participation in the public debate of issues of the day".

I am sure there will be plenty of people reading this and thinking: "Well, what do you expect? That's what government officials do - they are there to protect their masters or mistresses, to cover up and hide things that might leave ministers open to criticism."

I am not going to allow myself to be that cynical. I want to believe that our Parliamentary system is built on the idea that open, honest debate is the way to achieve good, democratic governance.
The Civil Service Code is founded on four "core values":

Integrity: Putting the obligations of public service above personal interests
Honesty: Being truthful and open
Objectivity: Basing advice and decisions on rigorous analysis of the evidence
Impartiality: Acting solely according to the merits of the case and serving governments of different political parties equally well

That first "core value" seems the most relevant to me. It might serve the "personal interests" of departmental civil servants to ensure citizens are deprived of information which allows people to construct cogent criticism of their policy, but what about the "public interest"?

In the case of the Drugs Value for Money Review which had prompted the advice to Mr Coaker, the document was eventually published but only after a lengthy delay because the Home Office wanted "to avoid a focus on the gaps in the evidence base".

When I asked the Information Commissioner what he made of the revelations today, his office was emphatic:

"Requests should not be refused simply on the grounds that disclosing the information would reveal gaps in the evidence base for a policy. There is a public interest in openness and transparency...
"The fact that the information may not reflect well on the public authority in question is not in itself a reason for it to be withheld."

There is that phrase again: "public interest".

I spoke to the Cabinet Office this afternoon to ask whether they thought civil servants had behaved properly in telling a minister to consider the "risk" that releasing information might lead to criticism of policy. A spokesperson told me:

"We take our duties under the Freedom of Information Act very seriously. It is also our duty to give ministers all the facts and advice in relation to the Act. In this case, the likelihood of criticism was something they felt the minister should be informed about. They might have been rebuked if they had not."

But why, I pressed, did they think that informing public debate constituted a risk? "Maybe they shouldn't have used the word 'risk'. There is a semantic point about the word 'risk'," he conceded.

Perhaps when the permanent secretary at the Home Office, Sir David Normington, read the advice that releasing official documents might risk people "using information... to criticise Government " he hauled the author over the coals. Perhaps Vernon Coaker or the then Home Secretary Jacqui Smith demanded to know why departmental officials were apparently in favour of stifling informed debate.

One would like to imagine so because the alternative explanation is that public servants and elected ministers are content to undermine our democracy.


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