What Eric Pickles wants you to see, against (FOI) the reality

14th September, 2013 10:56 am

eric_pickles.jpg

Today the Independet reveals that Communities Secretary Eric Pickles and his officials tried to suppress information that could be ‘embarrassing’ to ministers, even though the Information Commissioner ordered them to release the information in a response to FOI requests from Hilary Benn MP.

Now Hilary hits back against his Conservative opposite, explaining why he decided to hold Eric Pickles to account:

Eric Pickles, the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, is always keen to lecture councils about transparency, but as I’ve found, he’s much less keen to apply it to himself.

Part of the job of an Opposition is to scrutinise the Government and hold ministers to account. As you would expect, as well as asking lots of parliamentary questions, I have used the right available to every citizen to direct a number of freedom of information (FOI) requests to Mr Pickles.

It is usually the case that government departments respond by providing the information requested, but under the direction of Mr Pickles and his advisers, DCLG has shown a marked reluctance to disclose. In a number of cases – even simple ones asking, for example, to see statistics on how many people had built their own houses in the past few years – our FOI requests have been rejected using the ministerial veto under Clause 36 of the Freedom of Information Act.

Of course we sought to appeal against these attempts to prevent the release of the information requested. And so, a year later, after DCLG spent thousands of pounds on lawyers and lots of civil servants’ time on reviews and appeals to conceal the information we sought, last week we won our third victory in just three months at the Information Commissioner.

The first case was Mr Pickles trying to avoid releasing statistics on the number of self-build houses constructed after the then Housing Minister, Grant Shapps, had proclaimed he was leading a “self-build revolution”. What was the answer we eventually forced out of them? The number of self-build houses had gone down.

The second was Mr Pickles trying to hide internal correspondence about criticism of the use of statistics by, once again, Mr Shapps.

And this time it was Mr Pickles trying to resist disclosure of correspondence to do with the awarding of a Portas Pilot to Mr Shapps’ local constituency. Mr Shapps was of course behind the Portas scheme.

What was astonishing about this latest case was that Mr Pickles tried to claim that because it was the Opposition who were asking for the information, the Government should be given special protection from having to disclose it. He seemed to want to be able to decide that if he was responding to a request from the Opposition for information that might embarrass him or his ministers, then he should be given special permission to reject that request. This preposterous idea would, at a stroke, end the notion that Freedom of Information is a right and instead make it a gift that ministers could offer when they wish. Not surprisingly, the Information Commissioner had no truck with it. And thank goodness, because otherwise journalists, opposition politicians, campaigners and all members of the public seeking to hold the Government to account, under the Pickles Doctrine, could have been denied disclosure whenever ministers felt like it. And yet this is the man who extols the “sunlight of transparency”!

It’s also another sign of this Government’s wish to control what happens. Just look at the shambles over the Lobbying Bill and its attempt to gag charities.

The truth is that Eric Pickles makes a lot of statements and promises – press release after press release – but ask him about the things that have really affected families in England and he suddenly goes all quiet. I think it’s because he and his ministers in DCLG really are out of touch with the damage their policies are doing. Here are five of the worst:

1: Imposing higher council tax bills on the poorest families by cutting funding for council tax support, and then trying to blame it all on local authorities.

2: Making unfair cuts to local government, by hitting the poorest areas hardest. When West Oxfordshire – the Prime Minister’s local authority – gets an increase and Liverpool, Manchester, Leeds, Newcastle and Sheffield – among others – are slashed, something’s gone wrong.

3: Talking a lot about localism while taking new powers to control council publications, remove planning decisions from local communities and weaken planning protection for our high streets and town centres.

4: Wasting a quarter of a billion pounds of public money on trying to persuade councils to change their rubbish collection arrangements, as a result of which just one council decided to move back to weekly rubbish collections.

5: Cutting the budget for investment in affordable housing by 60% and so presiding over a housing crisis, with housing completions now at their lowest peacetime level since the 1920s.

That’s why it’s vital we keep scrutinising Mr Pickles, and calling him and his ministers to account, so that he actually practises what he preaches.

  • Stop City Airport ✈

    But Labour does the exact same thing. Labour run Southwark Council and it’s Leader Peter John have been ordered by the Information Commissioner to release information on the redevelopment of the Haygate Estate to residents.

    They continue to refuse and are using taxpayers money to now got to tribunal.

    The Conservatives are not alone in trying to supress information.

    http://www.standard.co.uk/news/london/southwark-in-tribunal-fight-to-keep-15bn-heygate-estate-deal-secret-8808759.html?origin=internalSearch

  • Tim Turner

    I have no doubt that DCLG ministers are not as open as they should be – but Labour has nothing to be proud of over FOI, with several senior figures openly repudiating it, and numerous defensive refusals when they were in power. This article is also misleadingly hyperbolic – the clause 36 ‘ministerial veto’ is simply the use of a mechanism in section 36 which requires a qualified person (in DCLG’s case, a minister) to sign off on a refusal. It would be the ‘Headteacher’s Veto’ in a school.

Latest

  • Featured Labour release their own letter, signed by businesspeople, supporters and zero hours contract workers

    Labour release their own letter, signed by businesspeople, supporters and zero hours contract workers

    After a Tory supporting letter appeared on the front page of this morning’s Telegraph, the Labour Party have tonight released a letter of their own – signed not only by businesspeople and Labour supporters, but also by many on zero hours contracts – backing Labour’s plans, including cracking down on zero hours contracts. The letter has been sent to – and will presumably be splashed on the front page of – the Guardian. Here it is in full: Dear Sir, […]

    Read more →
  • News Unions Labour launches workplace manifesto

    Labour launches workplace manifesto

    Labour’s major announcement today has been on zero hours contracts – but that shouldn’t obscure the unveiling of a much broader set of policies (of which the zero hours contract crackdown was only one) as part of a “workplace manifesto”. The other key policies in the document (which have largely been announced over the past few years, but which are now collated into a single offer for working people) are: Raising the National Minimum Wage to more than £8 Scrapping the […]

    Read more →
  • News Peter Mandelson standing in Manchester: Labour peer in running for top job

    Peter Mandelson standing in Manchester: Labour peer in running for top job

    Former Labour Cabinet minister Peter Mandelson has confirmed that he has put his name forward to be the next chancellor of Manchester University. Mandelson, who was elevated to the House of Lords by Gordon Brown, said he is “excited about what’s happening in Manchester”. The New Labour architect was the minister responsible for universities between 2008 and 2010, and is thought to consider widening participation in Higher Education is one of his proudest achievements of the Labour Government. Although the role is […]

    Read more →
  • News Video Labour winning web wars as over a million watch Martin Freeman election ad online

    Labour winning web wars as over a million watch Martin Freeman election ad online

    Over a million people have watched Labour’s latest election broadcast online in just two days. Labour today confirm that the video, starring Martin Freeman, has been watched more than 1,152,000 times. In contrast, the Conservatives latest broadcast, which also came out on Tuesday, has been seen just 91,000 times – that means Labour’s has been viewed by almost 13 times as many people. Last week, more people engaged with Labour’s Facebook page than any other party, with almost half a […]

    Read more →
  • Comment Local Government Despite what Pickles thinks, the public values council services

    Despite what Pickles thinks, the public values council services

    Yesterday, the Liverpool Echo launched its manifesto for the general election. It’s a compilation of the key issues that the tens of thousands of readers think are most important. Top of the list? “More money for local councils”. “You told us that you want better funding for local councils which have seen hundreds of millions of pounds stripped from their budgets over the last five years” the paper says, “threatening key local services from children’s centres to libraries”. 62% of […]

    Read more →
Share with your friends










Submit