Ed: Continued from Part I which was published here on Wednesday.
The whole saga was a let- down for the important issue of freedom of information.
The Home Office did their utmost to fight the disclosure and used a top-flight Barrister to do so.
I was up against someone with specialist legal knowledge of the Freedom of Information Laws, whereas I had next to none.
With this disadvantage, I was pleased to achieve success and strike a blow for transparency in government decisions.
One interesting aspect of the case involved the use of a Home Office Minister who is deemed to be a “qualified person” to give an “opinion” authorising the non-disclosure.
The Minister concerned, the Rt. Hon. Robert Goodwill, MP, signed a Submission from his Civil Servants, an “Opinion” on this, but it was admitted that he had not read the disputed material itself and that it was found that there was a lack of clarity in the Submission.
Despite this, and despite the fact that Robert Goodwill had no knowledge of the Crown Dependencies and did not discuss the Submission with any UK government Minister with Crown Dependencies’ responsibilities before signing, the Tribunal found that his “Opinion” was “reasonable.”
This is disturbing because the criteria for deciding on what is a “reasonable opinion” has been set at a very low level.
In my opinion, this needs to be challenged for the future otherwise Civil Servants will continue to obtain the signatures of Ministers to authorise non –disclosure of information they have not actually seen, or they have not given a rational opinion on.
In the case of Robert Goodwill, he was barely in the Home Office for a year.
The revelation of his lack of attention to detail, and his preparedness to authorise non- disclosure of public interest material, will surely damage his political credibility.
Fortunately, this part of the case was not crucial to the conclusion the Tribunal reached.
Another surprising fact of this case has been the conduct of the Information Commissioner’s Office. The Senior Case Officer, Mrs. H. Jarman, who investigated on behalf of the ICO, amazingly never asked to see the disputed non-disclosed material and relied on the Submission prepared by the Civil Servants.
She also did not pursue a number of other areas of investigation.
As this was an important case that went to a Tribunal, the least that could be expected was for the ICO to exercise good governance and due diligence, and to review their procedures before allowing this to proceed this far.
They were given ample opportunity to do so but didn’t.
This calls into question the professional standards which should be expected of the ICO, the chain of command, and how they check the work of Case Officers to make sure investigating work has been carried out to a high standard.
The positives of winning this case are:
1.) That the Home Office, who have a pretty appalling record with disclosing information, has had a strong warning shot across the bows.
It is up to the new Home Secretary, Sajid Javid, to take notice of this defeat for them, and for them to put their house in order. This should not have gone to a Tribunal before his authorisation, but again, the Home Office too had plenty of opportunities to review their position and refused to do so.
2.) An instruction has been made to disclose information which was wrongly withheld from the public. This is a major victory against secrecy in government. This was a matter of principle, not necessarily on the issue itself
3.) As for the issue itself, the Syrian refugee programme, it has long been a government policy which is full of flaws.
The Home Office actually said in this case that one of their reasons for non-disclosure was because they did not want to risk some local authorities deciding to not participate in the programme. It was, therefore, in their view, in the national public interest not to have disclosure.
It is worth noting that another recent Freedom of Information battle was lost by the Home Office against the Barnabas charity.
That involved the revelation that virtually no Syrian Christians were being admitted into the UK, despite them making up about ten percent of the Syrian population.
This is a breach of the Human Rights of those Syrians excluded from entry on religious/ethnic grounds.
I believe the government has given a misleading impression to the public and the local authorities about many aspects of the Syrian VPR programme, and they are still being secretive to this day. It is most concerning.