Friday, June 25, 2010

Home Office internal document reveals bunker mentality of secrecy and suppression

23.00 update: this story has now been picked up by PA news: Ministers 'covered up drugs report'
and is also discussed on BBC Home Affairs correspondent Mark Easton's blog: Critical public interest (see update below)

 30.06.10 update: complete memo now available on the Transform website in original Word doc format

An internal Home Office memo, accidentally leaked to the BBC’s Martin Rosenbaum (see his blog here), today exposes a culture of playing fast and loose with Freedom of Information (FOI) requests that might expose Government policy to criticism. The fifteen-page document demonstrates in detail how officials at the Home Office discussed withholding a Home Office commissioned value for money study (of the UK drug strategy) from Transform because of fears of bad press for its much vaunted drug policy. The epic 3 year saga of how we finally obtained the VFM study is detailed here. The internal document was inadvertently sent to Rosenbaum (the deleted portions were still visible) along with a letter that the Home Office sent him as a part of an unconnected FOI request. It has allowed for a brief peep behind the curtain of obfuscation and spin that has characterised so many of our dealings with the Home Office.

For reference the complete (inadvertently) leaked memo is on the Transform website here -unaltered in original Word document format.

In the memo, which was copied to the Home Secretary and the Permanent Secretary, in Annex D under the heading ‘Potential issues arising from the Report’, it says:

“The release of the report entails the risk of Transform, or other supporters of legalisation, using information from the report to criticise the Government’s drug policy, or to support their call for the legalisation of drugs and the introduction of a regulated system of supply. These risks should be considered in reaching a decision on whether to release the report, as recommended.”
This is an extraordinary comment to write in a document like this as it so blatantly goes against the spirit of FOI. But more importantly demonstrates that the Home Office was not applying the guidelines that say that all FOI requests should be dealt with 'blind'. (i.e. not taking into account who has made the request.) . In this context it is particularly odd, indeed faintly ridiculous that the Home Office in response to Rosenbaum state that 'The Freedom of Information Act is applicant blind. Regardless of who the applicant is, all requests for information are assessed and answered in the same manner' - when this is obviously not the case as evidenced by the actual document they were being asked about. Bizarre. (See update below).

A document is either exempt under the Act, or it is not. It is not for civil servants to make decisions about releasing information based upon its potential to provide ammunition for those challenging Government doctrine or policy. That is not and should not be the function of the Freedom of Information Act.

The document even contained worked up reactive media positions, should the report eventually be released and recieve media attention. You have to ask: Shouldn't they be developing effective policy, rather than suppressing evidence, censoring criticism and working up reactive press soundbites?

This is all reminiscent of the Government’s handling of the Prime Minister's Strategy Unit Drugs Report released in July 2005.

One of the series of entirely spurious reasons originally given for withholding the report (see here for details of this and the various others) was that the National Audit Office was soon to realease a review of drug strategy value for money and that release of the report at the same time  
“risks misinterpretation of the findings of the [NAO] report”
As the Economist coverage of this development noted (‘Inconvenient Truths’ Dec 3rd 09):
 ‘This is believed to be the first time that a public body has openly refused to release information in order to manage the news better’
Ironically the NAO report and Public Accounts Committee report that followed it berated the Home Office for having nothing approaching an effective drug strategy evaluation framework, which was one of the key points the VFM review was making in the first place.

One thing that this memo will hopefully do, is to bring the issue of drug policy's value for money to the attention of the coalition Government, and we have long suggested that the very obvious evidence vaccum could begin to be filled by conducting an Impact Assessment of current enforcement policy and related legislation.

This ought to be a Government interested in Impact Assessment. In the current economic climate the Government's mantra is: 'What should we cut? You decide.' Well, what about at least costing out the war on drugs and comparing it with alternatives.

Let's not forget that David Cameron called on the UK Government to initiate 'a discussion within the [UN] Commission on Narcotic Drugs of alternative ways—including the possibility of legalisation and regulation—to tackle the global drugs dilemma' as a back bench member of the Home Affairs Select Committee in 2001/2. Or that Nick Clegg's Lib Dem's Election Manifesto all but called for decriminalisation of personal use. Or indeed that Alan Duncan is the first member of Government to have written a book with a chapter advocating in favour of legalisation.

Transform will be making official complaints to the relevant parliamentary bodies, not only to bring pressure to bear on those mishandling FOI requests with regard to drug policy, but also to encourage better FOI practice more generally for the future. There is a bigger issue here that has nothing to do with drug policy or Transform.

That said, if we are to move towards a more effective drug policy this culture of secrecy and suppression of  evidence must end. The focus must shift from the futile defence of a broken and failed policy paradigm, to developing effective, just and humane alternatives. This can only be done in an atmosphere of openness and with a commitment to what works (for the public that is), not defending to the last what so obviously does not.

Lastly, we are aware of another value for money document that has still not been released. Maybe releasing this and other relevant research would help draw a line under this depressing episode and signify a fesh start under the new Government, as well as obviously helping inform a mature policy debate based on evidence of effectiveness. That's not too much to ask is it?

Update 26.06.10  Mark Easton's blog quotes The Information Commissioner who asked about the revelations reposnded that:
"Requests should not be refused simply on the grounds that disclosing the information would reveal gaps in the evidence base for a policy. There is a public interest in openness and transparency...

"The fact that the information may not reflect well on the public authority in question is not in itself a reason for it to be withheld."


Duncan Stott said...

Quick correction: Alan Duncan isn't a cabinet member.

Steve Rolles said...

thanks Duncan - corrected

Mafficker said...

I wonder where this leaves the current Home Office appeal against the Information Commissioner's decision ordering the release of the drug classification review consultation paper. Were the Home Office senior secretaries managing the media response when they disclosed the partially redacted paper last month? Can I add a shameless plug for Casey Hardison and the drugequality project for their foi efforts as they like transform are committed to an effective drug law and policy: minimising harm and maximising benefit?

ChristMotForbud said...

Good work.

You are proving that the shame our governments have created to disparage us really belongs to them.

I am not an anarchist and I think governments are necessary, but I have to wonder how many of the people running them actually deserve the authority they have. They may love to call themselves servants (no doubt with the thought in mind that Jesus lauded servitude), but for sure they are not serving God, humanity, or their fellow citizens.

Certain people and certain organizations in our governments are metastasized cancers which need to be excised.

Please continue to question them and seek all the information you can. This will only help; as they continue to paint themselves in an indefensible corner.

Anonymous said...

I don't understand how the home
office staff and the police are able to leak all this evidence, in
Norfolk the health service has been
leaking details of court cases to police when they are being sued, they are also leaking details about
cases and nobbling the trials,innocent republican suspects
details are being circulated round
the health service, putting lives at risk, we have just had a multi
million pound enquiry, and yet again this week the sun has obtained home office leaks from files held by the Home Secretray.
the DWP are also leaking files to
journalists for cash in terror cases such as the sun.