Monday, 2 April 2012

Gove and the law

Financial Times Comment

When the coalition came to power, David Cameron, prime minister, said he wanted it to be the “most open and transparent government in the world”. Such pledges of see-through politics are hard to square with the conduct of his education secretary, Michael Gove.

Having been caught by a Financial Times investigation repeatedly failing to comply with the Freedom of Information Act, Mr Gove has just mounted a legal challenge against a ruling from the Information Commissioner’s Office calling for the release of government data from a private email account.

For an administration publicly committed to openness such a step is puzzling. The aim of such a challenge can only be to weaken the act by creating new exemptions that could be used to block disclosure. The precise basis of Mr Gove’s appeal cannot be divined as he has not disclosed it.

The current legal position, however, is very clear. Mr Gove conducted official business using a private email address registered in his wife’s name. He declined to disclose data from it to FoI requesters because it was a “political discussion”. He also cited Cabinet Office advice that private email accounts were outside FoI law.

This advice has since been confirmed by the ICO to be erroneous. Government business, which is subject to the law, remains government business whether conducted over official or private emails. The ICO also rejected his claim that the discussion was political, saying that the email in question clearly related to “the business of the public authority”.

That appears to leave Mr Gove with no choice but to ensure he has complied with all past requests, releasing any pertinent data from his private accounts and those of his staff. True, this might involve disclosing private emails to officials, so they can release the public data. But that is the price that Mr Gove’s team pay for storing official data among the private.

What Mr Gove seems to be after is a blanket exemption for any official email touching on political business. But this is neither necessary nor a good idea. The act already contains sufficient exemptions, for instance shielding the policy process and cabinet discussions from public disclosure. In any case, if the law needed to be changed, the correct place for that to happen would be in parliament.

Compliance with the law is non-negotiable, and Mr Gove should stop resisting. The longer he prevaricates, the more he raises questions about his motives.

Financial Times