By Mark Lloyd
Northern Ireland secretary Peter Hain is under investigation after his department replied to a request under the freedom of information act (FOIA) untruthfully.
The affair threatens to torpedo Hain’s bid for the deputy leadership of the Labour party. The FOIA request sought details on who was consulted about his appointment last year of the interim victims commissioner.
Officials, acting on behalf of the Northern Ireland office (NIO) – and with Hain’s approval – repeated the untruths, as given in reply to the FOIA request, in statements to the courts during a legal challenge to the way the appointment was made.
A high court judge condemned the NIO for misleading both the FOIA requestor and, later, the courts. He called for the attorney general to launch an inquiry into Hain and his officials, saying that if the untruths were given deliberately in either the FOIA reply or to the courts, it amounted to a conspiracy to pervert the course of justice.
Following the judgement, Hain said: “I absolutely reject any suggestion that there was a deliberate attempt to mislead the court. I would welcome any decision to hold an inquiry.”
The attorney general, Lord Goldsmith, has told parliament that any report produced by the inquiry, which he is setting up, will be published.
Earlier this month, Justice Girvan, ruled that the appointment had been “motivated by improper purpose”. He condemned the NIO’s approach to the FOIA request and subsequent court hearings.
He said: “I am satisfied that the information supplied in the [FOIA reply letter] was evasive, misleading and in certain respects clearly wrong.”
“Since, within the NIO… the true factual situation was known, it must be concluded that it was decided that the correct information should not be placed before the court.”
“This case, thus, raises very serious issues which should be the subject of immediate and searching inquiry at a high level.”
Less than a fortnight later, the judge felt forced to expand on the earlier judgment, saying: “The papers and manner in which the [NIO] met the legal challenge raised serious issues as to whether there was an attempt to allow the court to be misled as to the true factual and legal situation,” he said.
“The [FOIA reply letter] was… written in the context of a likely judicial review challenge. If incorrect and misleading information was deliberately given to put the applicant on a false trail then, prima facie, that conduct would appear to fall within the concept of perverting the course of justice. If, in the course of the substantive judicial review itself, there was a deliberate attempt to mislead the court, the same would be true.”
David Lidington, shadow Northern Ireland secretary, said: “The criticisms contained in Mr Justice Gir-van's judgment are a devastating indictment of the secretary of state and his advisers.”
“The issue here is not about the suitability of the interim victims' commissioner, but of the conduct of the government in her appointment.”
Mark Lloyd is a barrister and former reporter on Channel 4 News.
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