Eric Pickles has refused to discipline the “source” in his department who made potentially defamatory comments about Electoral Commission chair Jenny Watson.
As revealed in LGC in October, the Department for Communities & Local Government refused to confirm or deny whether communities secretary Eric Pickles took external legal advice in the wake of highly critical comments made about Electoral Commission chair Jenny Watson.
Ministers declined to renew Ms Watson’s position as a board member of the Audit Commission in September, after Ms Watson had been nominated to serve as a commissioner until the organisation is scrapped in 2012.
A “DCLG source” was quoted in The Times as saying Ms Watson had “built her career on incompetence”, “milked the taxpayer” and was “not fit for the role”.
The negative briefing ran counter to DCLG’s own internal advice, circulated in an email sent by Mr Pickles’ special advisor Sheridan Westlake on 16 August, which stated that decisions not to reappoint directors should be communicated in a “pro-active, responsible manner” and was “no reflection on their performance”.
Last month in Prime Minister’s Questions David Cameron said his government would not employ “smear” tactics.
LGC was told by a source close to the department that DCLG lawyers advised Mr Pickles that the comments could be defamatory, prompting Mr Pickles’ to seek external legal advice.
However, in contrast to the department’s public stance on the importance of transparency, DCLG officials have twice refused to answer a Freedom of Information request from LGC on the matter, opting instead to neither confirm nor deny that it holds the information requested.
This is despite the Information Commissioner’s guidance on the FOI Act, which states that departments may only refuse to confirm or deny that they hold requested information in “exceptional cases”, such as requests about police surveillance operations or requests about military “battle plan[s] or specific weapons carried by troops”.
Last month Mr Pickles said his department was committed to greater transparency and wanted to “shine a light on spending to save taxpayer’s money”. “The sunlight of openness may be uncomfortable for some, but it will expose how taxpayer’s money is being wasted,” he added.
Local government minister Bob Neill told MPs last week that DCLG had spent £1.1m on external legal advice since 12 May. He also said that there had been no instances of disciplinary action in the department on matters concerning defamation.
Shadow communities secretary Caroline Flint has 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:”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.”
LGC is appealing to the Information Commissioner.
This article was updated on 16 May following a request by a third party