Labour’s shadow communities secretary has urged Eric Pickles to come clean on his department’s refusal to answer a Freedom of Information request concerning “disgraceful” and “potentially defamatory” comments about Electoral Commission chair Jenny Watson.
The FOI request, made by LGC, concerned legal advice requested by the communities secretary after highly critical comments about Ms Watson were reported in the Times and attributed to a Department for Communities & Local Government source.
The source was quoted as saying Ms Watson had “built her career on incompetence”, “milked the taxpayer” and was “not fit for the role”.
The comments followed Mr Pickles’ decision not to renew Ms Watson’s position as a board member of the Audit Commission in September.
LGC understands that following the publication of the comments, which were widely reported, Mr Pickles sought internal legal advice as to whether they could be considered defamatory and on being told that there could be grounds for legal action then sought external legal advice.
But in contrast to the department’s public stance on the importance of transparency, DCLG officials refused to answer an FOI request from LGC about whether Mr Pickles took legal advice, saying it was “unable to either confirm nor deny” that it held the information requested.
In a letter (see right), Ms Flint urged Mr Pickles to “come clean” over whether “tax payers have had to pick up the bill for his department’s negative briefings”. She said the FOI Act imposed a duty for government departments to confirm or deny whether the information requested is held.
According to guidance set out by the Information Commissioner on the FOI Act, departments may only refuse to confirm or deny that they hold requested information in “exceptional cases”. It states that such cases could involve requests about police surveillance operations or in war time, requests “regarding a particular battle plan or specific weapons carried by troops”.
Ms Flint said Mr Pickles had championed the need for greater transparency in government, including making the case that local councils should publish details of all expenditure above £500 and urged him to clarify if his department held the information requested by LGC.
She also asked Mr Pickles if the department had investigated the source of the comments and whether he was aware of who had made them.
She said:”Eric Pickles has made great play of his belief in greater transparency and value for money. The public have a right to know whether his department took legal advice following the disgraceful negative newspaper briefing against Jenny Watson by a DCLG source. If it did he also needs to come clean on how much it cost taxpayers and who was responsible.”
This article was updated on 16 May following a request from a third party