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

September 14, 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.

Latest

  • Comment Going for the student vote: Postgraduates matter more

    Going for the student vote: Postgraduates matter more

    In a politics dominated by efforts to chase the grey vote it is nice to see a bit of electoral competition at the other end of the generational divide. As Labour weighs up what to do about tuition fees it might seem that a big offer to students could yield important gains next year at the general election, as well as shoring up any post-2010 support tempted to return to the Lib Dem fold. 40.5% of students voted Lib Dem […]

    Read more →
  • Comment Independence won’t deliver for Scottish women

    Independence won’t deliver for Scottish women

    As the referendum debate in Scotland picks up pace, there is an increased focus on how women will vote. So far, it would seem that women in Scotland are steadfastly resisting Salmond’s overtures. It’s no surprise, given that his central offer for more childcare has been dismissed by the experts, and women are starting to understand that the SNP are being led by polls and not principles. Women are asking why, if the SNP’s commitment to equal representation is real, […]

    Read more →
  • News Weekly survey: Cost of living, elections and devolution

    Weekly survey: Cost of living, elections and devolution

    Average wages are set to rise faster than prices – so is there still a cost of living crisis? Ed Balls says there is, the Tories are arguing that there isn’t. What do you think? And with the European and local elections coming up next month – how much campaigning is going on in your area? And when were you last out on the doorstep? Also in our survey – Ed Miliband has pledged to devolve at least £20 billion to be […]

    Read more →
  • News Labour have a mini reshuffle

    Labour have a mini reshuffle

    Labour have had a very mini pre-Easter reshuffle, with two new role announced. Thomas Docherty, formerly Angela Eagle’s PPS, has become Shadow Deputy Leader of the House, while Angela Smith moves from that position to become a Shadow Environment minister. Congratulations to both on their new roles.

    Read more →
  • News Tory housing shambles: Over budget and behind schedule

    Tory housing shambles: Over budget and behind schedule

    It’s no secret that Britain faces a housing crisis – and new figures show David Cameron’s big plan to “Get Britain Building” is turning out to be an abject failure. The Get Britain Building fund was launched in November 2011 by then-Housing Minister Grant Shapps, who announced £400 million to build 16,000 homes over the next three years. Cameron then relaunched the project in March 2012, with the cost soaring to £570 million and the deadline extended to March 2015. […]

    Read more →