The Sunday Herald had a striking story yesterday about the Information Commissioner’s office declaring they would not make a decision during the election period. RISE candidate James McEnaney (left) had put in an FOI relating to the standardised tests agenda, and the response included this line:
“Although it does not affect the Scottish Information Commissioner directly, she has decided not to issue any decisions which might put forward a critical view of the Ministers. In discussion with the Head of Enforcement, it has been decided to delay the issue of the decision on your case until after 5 May 2016. ”
Now, no-one should want the Information Commissioner’s office to be partisan or to look partisan. But unfortunately that’s how they’ve just positioned themselves. The key problem here is the phrase “put forward a critical view of the Ministers“.
Do they mean “require to be published information which is itself damaging to Ministers”? Or do they mean “overrule an inappropriate Ministerial decision to withhold information”? It’s not clear, but neither of these is an acceptable reason to work around the provisions of FOI legislation. And in both cases, if the information should legitimately be published, it’s partisan to withhold it just because there’s an election on.
The email to James McEnaney also discusses purdah rules at some length. This is also a misdirection. Purdah restricts the activities of Ministers and civil servants. It does not protect them from embarrassing stories based on their historic activities. With this inept decision the Commissioner’s office have put themselves in the inappropriate position of protecting Ministers during an election. They have also undermined their own credibility and neutrality, and prevented the electorate from knowing something they have a right in law to know – it may be big a deal, it may not be, but that’s for the public to decide, not the Commissioner.