by Chris Ames
The Information Tribunal has rejected my appeal against the Information Commissioner in my attempt to have all documents declassified for publication by the Inquiry released now, rather than having to wait for the Inquiry to publish its report. The question of whether it is reasonable and in the public interest for the information to be withheld so that the public do not try to make sense of it without guidance from the great and the good was not decided. During the appeal, the Cabinet Office introduced a new exemption under Section 12 of the FOI Act – that the cost of retrieving the information would exceed the relevant limits. They won the case because they convinced the Tribunal – and indeed me – that their record keeping is a complete shambles.
But the case did reveal a new reason for the delay to the Inquiry, particularly in the long-running process of getting documents declassified. For reasons that are unclear, where the Inquiry should have written to the relevant government department for permission to publish each piece of information, it instead addressed all its requests to the Cabinet Office, which then had to write to the relevant department, which then wrote back to the Cabinet Office, which then wrote back to the Inquiry – and so on.
The notorious protocol governing publication of information sets out very clearly what should happen:
The Inquiry will notify the department, agency or service within HMG which is the originator of the information or that was the recipient of the information if it originated from outside HMG (the “lead government department”) …
The lead government department, following consultation with other government departments with an interest in the information and, where applicable, any third party source of that information, will respond to the Inquiry, in writing, as soon as possible…
Rather surprisingly, the Cabinet Office’s witness – a deputy director – told the Tribunal that, as the sponsoring department for the Inquiry, the Cabinet Office was the “lead department” for all requests. Clearly, the lead department changes according to a specific piece of information. The Cabinet Office claims to have been facilitating the declassification process and making sure deadlines were met, which is pretty laughable in the circumstances. It seems control freakery provides a better explanation. Of course, the inquiry secretary is Cabinet Office insider Margaret Aldred.
The protocol doesn’t actually refer to declassification either but to the Inquiry being allowd to publish documents or extracts. Another interesting distinction that emerged during the hearing was that the original documents have not themselves been declassified, just the versions held by the Inqiury. Astonishingly, it appears that the Inquiry is both redacting the documents as instructed and stamping them “declassified”. Because the Cabinet Office’s record keeping is so bad, it is largely having to trust the Inquiry to do this as instructed.
Although in its written submissions, the Cabinet Office claimed that the Inquiry would publish its report and the evidence in June or July 2016, as suggested in Sir John Chilcot’s recent letter to David Cameron, its witness had to admit that there is no guarantee that it will even come out this year.
So here we are in 2016. We may see the end of the Inquiry this year. Or we may not.