by Chris Lamb
In drafting my case for appealing the Information Commissioner’s decision backing the Cabinet Office’s refusal to disclose the official advice and discussions around the setting up of the Iraq Inquiry, I have been presented with the task of fleshing out the meaning of the so-called “chilling effect”.
The alleged “chilling effect” of the disputed information – deterring the candour of civil servants in offering advice to ministers in future and driving decision making into backroom, unrecorded channels – is the key reason put forward by the Cabinet Office, and accepted by the Information Commissioner, for blocking this request.
Reputable academic commentators on the “chilling effect” – such as the Constitution Unit at University College, London – have described it as a very slippery concept and have found very little evidence to suggest that it exists at central government level. The Constitution Unit, in surveying civil servants, has found that adhering to conventions based upon civil service professional ethics – such as being impartial and objective and recording decisions – takes precedence over a so-called “chilling effect”.
My task in searching out meaning for “chilling effect” in relation to the information I was requesting was made particularly difficult because neither Cabinet Office correspondence or the Information Commissioner’s Decision Notice offered clues to work out answers for the most basic questions. Logically, one would ask who, or which civil servants stand to be “chilled” by the discosure; how and why would they be?
The appeal process, through the First Tier (Information) Tribunal, has not been more helpful in this respect.
I have been forced to argue my case against a wholly abstract “chilling effect”, operating upon unspecified civil servants – except for the known quantity that they are central government senior civil servants – with next to no evidence explaining the how and why. All the Information Commissioner’s Office and Cabinet Office have to say of the matter is that if I knew the content of the information I would understand the “significant and notable” chilling effect accorded to it, but as I do not know unfortunately I cannot understand this.
It appears an information blocking fait accompli. Readmore..