Lawyers acting for the government are to appeal to the high court against an order to disclose confidential reviews on the identity-cards programme.
The office of government commerce (OGC) has already lost an appeal to the information tribunal against the order to release two “gateway reviews” of the ID-cards project under the freedom of information act (FOIA).
The tribunal earlier this month upheld the decision in favour of disclosure by the information commissioner, who regulates FOIA in the UK, even though his decision prompted government lawyers to attack him for not living in the “real world”.
The OGC had 28 days to release the material unless it launched a further appeal, which can only be limited to points of law, to the high court. The deadline expired yesterday, and the OGC decided to lodge the further appeal.
An OGC spokesman said: “We do not agree with the tribunal's findings on where the public interest lies in relation to what information should be disclosed and what it is appropriate to withhold.
“So far, the gateway process has helped achieve over £2.5 billion in value for money savings. In the government's view, disclosure would seriously undermine the effectiveness of the process, as confidentiality is essential to it.”
“It is not in the public interest to put that effective-ness at risk through disclosure of the information contained in the two reports concerned in this case.”
The department, an agency of the treasury, had refused disclosure of these specific reports, as well as all other FOIA requests for gateway reviews.
During a four-day hearing before the three-member tribunal, a former senior civil servant said that publishing reviews of the government’s information-technology projects would provoke clashes between departments of state.
Peter Gershon, the former civil servant responsible for introducing “gateway reviews” of government information-technology programmes, said that publication of the ID-cards reviews would set a precedent leading to open confrontation between government departments.
Gershon, former chief executive of the OGC, said that confidentiality was essential to the success of gateway reviews. The government could either be open or have an effective scrutiny process – not both, he said.
But the tribunal said in its decision: “We find that the grave consequences for the gateway process which [the OGC] maintains would result from even the remotest possibility that reports would be disclosed is overstated.”
Another version of this article first appeared in Computer Weekly.
FOIA Centre commentary
We have previously made our position on this case clear. The request for this information – made 29 months ago – is proving to be the most critical testing ground for “freedom of information” in the UK to date.
The government’s true anti-freedom of information position – together with that of the minister in charge of the treasury, Gordon Brown, the chancellor and prime-minister-to-be – is starkly demonstrated by its approach to this case.
And despite the oft-cited inadequacies of the information commissioner, even his office managed to make the right decision despite the government’s inevitable insults. Meanwhile, the information tribunal, in a characteristically carefully thought-through judgement, cut the government piffle and spin about the damage that openness would allegedly cause down to size.
So, this crucial test of freedom of information lies with that bastion of openness, the high court, perhaps the only institution in Britain less open than the OGC.
However, the OGC seems, from its public statements on its decision to appeal to the high court, keen to rehearse arguments that it has already lost. The high court can only consider an appeal on claims where the tribunal has erred in law.
We think that the OGC will have to work hard to effect a case that the tribunal has erred in law. But we also note that the appeal, whatever its eventual outcome, does prevent the information that was requested more than two years ago from being published for a while yet.
Comment on this article
Reviews on ID-cards plan must be made public
‘Openness on IT projects would spark clashes’
Government attacks FOIA watchdog over order
NHS neutered NAO’s criticisms of IT scheme
With obsessive official secrecy, is FOIA any use?