Friday, August 05, 2011

Scotland Office rapped twice by Information Commissioner after Labour MP complaint

The Courier reported yesterday that the Scotland Office has received a slap on the wrist from the Information Commissioner over its refusal to disclose details of formal meetings between Secretary of State Michael Moore and Liam Fox about the aircraft carriers. This was the second such decision that had been made in the last few weeks. Details of both decisions can be found here (along with details of other cases where the Labour Government was found wanting).

Liberal Democrats have shouted hardest and longest about freedom of information, so to have a Department headed by one of our Cabinet ministers be found wanting in this way has to be a bit embarrassing, doesn't it?

Or maybe not.

Let's dig into this a bit more. The requests concerned were little more than a bit of Labour party muck stirring. That's not to say that the Scotland Office shouldn't be open, but we have to see this complaint for what it is.

Dunfermline and West Fife MP Thomas Docherty made the original FOI request. In just over a year in Parliament, he's hit the headlines for various twitteries. First of all it was slating other MPs' standards of dress. Then it was leading the calls for a statue of Tony Blair. I have to say that in four years of working for the previous MP for Dunfermline, not one person had raised either of these issues. Docherty hit the headlines again in March this year for apparently complaining because someone nicked his wine - although he denied this was the case. And then he had the sheer unbridled nastiness to report David Laws to the Police over his expenses. These actions do not speak to me of the actions of a man whose constituents figure highly in his thinking.

The carriers do mean a lot of work for the dockyard at Rosyth, so he does have a legitimate constituency interest in asking about them. Except they had been, much to everyone's surprise, both saved by the time he made the request. So the outcome that Rosyth needed had already come about. He's spent the last few months telling anyone who'll listen that Mike Moore did little to save the carriers and it looks very much that this FOI request was part of that campaign.

I'm not sure how you can draw a conclusion about how effective somebody was at making the case for something by recording the number of formal meetings took place, though. Let's dig a bit deeper. As far as the Telegraph was concerned at the time, it was David Cameron who was all for scrapping the carriers while Liam Fox wanted to keep them. So if that's true, Mike and Liam Fox were on the same side, and the arguments were actually taking place elsewhere in Government.  We know from various sources that Mike, Vince Cable and Nick Clegg were all convinced that the carriers should be built and can conclude that they were arguing the case pretty strongly in Government. Liam Fox needed that support within the Cabinet to get the carriers passed a sceptical Treasury and a Chancellor who's a key ally of Cameron's. So anybody who tries to suggest that Mike Moore or any other Liberal Democrat did nothing on the carriers is talking pure and utter rubbish.

Just as an aside, former MP and now Scottish Lib Dem leader pressed the then Labour Government on countless occasions to get on with the carriers. Nowhere did Labour muck up in Government quite as much as they did in Defence, but they should not have delayed the carriers as they did in 2008 as Willie said at the time.

The Information Commissioner's decision was not as clear cut as Thomas Docherty might like to suggest, either. He recognised that there could be a legitimate public interest in exempting this information from the Act, although concluded that there was a greater interest in disclosure:
There is a strong public interest in the Ministers being able to have the space to argue and debate freely and frankly. Final decisions about the outworkings (i.e. the lower level policy decisions) of the SDSR have yet to be made and announced. Unless the Secretary of State for Scotland can communicate freely and frankly with his Ministerial colleagues he cannot fulfil his function representing Scotland in matters which are reserved to the UK government, within the UK government. Disclosure of the dates upon which the two Ministers met would impact on the Secretary of State for Scotland’s ability to ability to conduct such discussions in a candid manner. (Paragraph 16 of Decision Notice)
Having considered the specific circumstances of this case carefully, including the content of the withheld information, the Commissioner has concluded that the public interest in maintaining the exemption does not outweigh the public interest in disclosing the information. The Commissioner has reached this conclusion largely because he believes that the disclosure of the withheld information would not impede Ministerial discussions to the extent envisaged by the Scotland Office.  (Paragraph 18 of Decision Notice).
So this is still a slap on the wrist to the Scotland Office, but a small one, and the Scotland Office have now been ordered to provide the information. I don't know what it'll say, but even  if it comes out that Mike Moore met every day with Liam Fox over the carriers, that in itself won't prove anything.  What we do know, from copious reports in the press, is that Mike was fighting for these carriers in some way every day.

The other recent case centred more on procedure at the Scotland Office. The complainant actually got what he was looking for eventually but wanted to proceed with the complaint anyway and the Scotland Office had been found to be in breach of the Act by taking too long to complete an internal review.

I don't think either of these cases are as bad as the headlines might suggest but I hope that Mike will have a quiet word with someone just to make sure that the processes in place in the Scotland Office for dealing with these requests are up to scratch.

1 comment:

cynicalHighlander said...

Why not get Willie to make a song and dance about it as he likes the publicity!

You will not get the truth out of M Moore as he has already told lies in the commons over the alleged 'Scottish' bank bailouts and his manipulation over the Calman proposals. Moore and Alexander enjoy wearing Tory clothes and are enjoying their prospects in that club.


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