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

  • News Corbyn campaign unhappy over Diane Abbott text row

    Corbyn campaign unhappy over Diane Abbott text row

    Yesterday, Labour members and registered supporters in London received a text from “Jeremy”, endorsing Diane Abbott in the race to become the candidate for London Mayor. For smartphone users, the name at the top appeared as “J Corbyn”: Always assumed @jeremycorbyn supported @HackneyAbbott for Mayor but this text to party members has made if formal pic.twitter.com/6i2yRshzEi — Andy Goss (@andygoss) July 29, 2015 However, LabourList now understands that not only was the text not agreed with the Jeremy Corbyn campaign, […]

    Read more →
  • News Yvette Cooper calls for Government to put “maximum diplomatic pressure” on France over Calais crisis

    Yvette Cooper calls for Government to put “maximum diplomatic pressure” on France over Calais crisis

    Yvette Cooper has called for the Government to put “maximum diplomatic pressure” on France over the refugee crisis in Calais. The shadow Home Secretary has argued that as the crisis worsens “the diplomacy with the French government isn’t working to get a sustainable solution.” She has called for “sufficient border staff” in Calais to ” to maintain order with the French Government and prevent people losing their lives.” Over 3,000 people – many of whom are thought to be refugees – are living […]

    Read more →
  • News Scotland Post-referendum slump drove Labour’s defeat in Scotland

    Post-referendum slump drove Labour’s defeat in Scotland

    Labour’s appalling election showing in Scotland was driven by those who had supported independence leaving the party to vote for the SNP – and the Nationalists’ economic message helped strengthen their landslide in the final months. However, the new research carried out by the British Election Study (BES), found that Yes to Independence voters were likely to move from Labour to SNP regardless of their views on austerity. Labour were reduced from 41 seats in Scotland to just one on […]

    Read more →
  • Featured News CWU and TSSA announce they’re backing Jeremy Corbyn to be Labour’s next leader

    CWU and TSSA announce they’re backing Jeremy Corbyn to be Labour’s next leader

    Update: TSSA, the transport union, have also announced that they’re endorsing Corbyn to be leader, with Burnham as second preference, and Eagle as deputy leader, with Watson as second preference. Their full statement is below. CWU has announced that they are backing Jeremy Corbyn to be Labour’s next leader. The union represents workers in the postal and telecoms sector. Dave Ward, CWU’s general secretary, released a video (which you can see below) explaining their decision. CWU will be also recommend members […]

    Read more →
  • Comment Labour’s ground campaign is better than the Tories’, and here’s why

    Labour’s ground campaign is better than the Tories’, and here’s why

    Much has been said about why Labour lost the General Election – again – but in the current post-mortem, we are at risk of undermining the one thing we do better than any other political movement; our ground game. Labour should be immensely proud of what we can achieve together on the ground, entirely outclassing other political operations both in terms of our tactics and our reach. In Ealing Central and Acton, our two and a half year campaign resulted […]

    Read more →
Share with your friends










Submit