The Cabinet Office, run by the urbane and slightly saturnine Francis Maude, champions the Government’s Transparency agenda. Transparency is the process of publishing (or obliging others to publish) data on a wide variety of subjects. Although Transparency and FOI are clearly nodding acquaintances, they don’t spend a lot of time together socially. Transparency is about what the Government want people to know, especially about other parts of the public sector; FOI is about what the public, journalists and companies want to know. The former is ordered and political, the latter is wayward and occasionally deranged. I know which of the two I would rather have a drink with.
The Cabinet Office’s lack of assurance (let’s call it that, anyway) with FOI is nevertheless confusing, given their throat-clearing devotion to Transparency. A decision from a week or so ago (http://tinyurl.com/6zwdu6z) exemplifies this.
The applicant wants information about the Special Advisers Remuneration Committee between May 12 2010 and July 10 2010, when the request is made. Questions are about how many times the committee has met, what it knows about Spads’ previous pay, how many now get more than a 5% uplift, and all minutes. The Cabinet Office’s refusal is somewhat less than fulsome:
“The exemption which applies to this information is section 36 of the Freedom of Information Act. The public interest test determines that the release of such information would prejudice the purpose of the exemption.”
Slow down, Cabinet Office, or you will blind us with detail. Inevitably, there is an internal review. At this point, they’re more forthcoming, and evidence is provided about the prejudice test, the involvement of the qualified person (Mr Maude) and a bit of public interest just to be polite. They also reveal just what the applicant can’t have – the committee’s terms of reference, two emails about a Spad, plus their CV and job description. The committee hasn’t met in the specified period, so that’s all.
The terms of reference and emails are withheld under Section 36(b) – prejudice to free and frank exchange of advice and views, while the CV and job description are withheld under Section 40 (personal data).
The emails are held to be exempt by the ICO, so we’ll leave that to one side. I’m quite prepared to believe that the Cabinet Office provides or receives advice that can reasonably be kept secret under Section 36. It’s the surrounding facts that make me think that the Cabinet Office’s relationship with FOI is not as transparent as it could be. The first refusal does not make it clear what they hold and what they don’t hold (the applicant’s main interest is meeting records of a committee which hasn’t met, and they don’t make this at all clear). As the Commissioner finds, the idea that a committee’s terms of reference will inhibit free and frank discussion if disclosed is antithetical to the principle of FOI – we might not be entitled to know exactly what people are saying, but if government is to be transparent, we need to know what they’re supposed to be doing. Disclosing terms of reference is essential for that (this isn’t, needless to say, a body doing security or investigation work, where secrecy might be assumed).
The decision notice doesn’t go into the job description as that was considered separately. However, while a CV is definitely personal data and probably exempt (unless like a lot of people, this particular person has put it on the internet), but a job description is not. A JD relates to a job, not the person doing it. In every job I have ever done, I have been the only person doing the job and so the JD relates solely to me, but that doesn’t make it personal. The ICO has been saying this for years, and yet apparently, the Cabinet Office hasn’t heard.
And finally, perhaps most depressingly, there is an implication that the Cabinet Office just won’t play along. The narrative describes the Commissioner’s finding that information (the terms of reference) isn’t exempt, and asking the Cabinet Office to volunteer it. They refuse, and won’t give out anything unless ordered to.
If the Cabinet Office is supposed to be championing openness for everyone else, the occasional glance in the mirror might help.