My regular reader (he knows who he is) will be aware that for most of this year I have been trying to find out whether Home Office Ministers have spent disproportionately more time seeing the senior leadership of the Metropolitan Police than the political leadership (ie the Mayor or the Deputy Mayor for Policing/Chair of the MPA).
I started in March with a Parliamentary Question. I got a non-answer in May (way beyond the normal time limit). I tried again and got another non-answer in July. I complained about this to the Leader of the House of Lords, whilst at the same time trying for the third time to get the answer via a Parliamentary Question. Within a week, the Leader of the House came back agreeing with me that the Home Office responses were inadequate and he wrote to the Home Office Minister asking that the Home Office supply me with the information requested.
The Home Office then wrote back to me and to the Leader of the House on 29th July, saying in essence that they always replied to questions about Home Office meetings in this unhelpful way.
So on 10th August, I made a request under the Freedom of Information Act to the Permanent Secretary asking her to supply me with a schedule of all meetings held by Home Office Ministers since 1st May 2010 with (a) the Mayor of London and/or the Chair of the Metropolitan Police Authority, and (b) the Commissioner and/or Deputy Commissioner of the Metropolitan Police, showing the dates of all such meetings, their duration and a list of all those present.
A few weeks later, I received a letter (undated) from an official (status and title not specified, and with no contact details apart from the main Home Office postal address supplied), saying that my request was being considered as to whether it was covered by Section 36(2)(c) of the Act – ie that it might be prejudicial to the effective conduct of public affairs. This consideration was so difficult that they would “need to extend the 20 day working day response period” (which is of course specified in the Act). He promised a full response (presumably as to whether Section 36(2)(c) applied or not) by 30th September.
Meanwhile on 6th September, the Home Office responded to my latest Parliamentary Question, which had requested that the list of meetings be placed in the Library of the House, by saying that “Ministers do not routinely place records of their meetings in the House Library”.
I must admit that by now I was beginning to lose the will to live.
However, today – a further twenty working days having passed since the 30th September and still not having heard from the Home Office – I have written again to the Permanent Secretary in the following terms:
“Dear Dame Helen
You will recall that I wrote to you on 10th August making the following request under the Freedom of Information Act: please supply me with a schedule of all meetings held by Home Office Ministers since 1st May 2010 with (a) the Mayor of London and/or the Chair of the Metropolitan Police Authority, and (b) the Commissioner and/or Deputy Commissioner of the Metropolitan Police, showing the dates of all such meetings, their duration and a list of all those present.
I received an undated reply from Stephen Donaghy about a month later. This said that the request was being considered under the exemption in Section 36(2)(c) of the Act, which relates to prejudice of the effective conduct of public affairs and that to consider the public interest test fully you needed to extend the response period. You undertook a full response by 20th September.
A further twenty working days have elapsed since the 20th September and I have still to receive any reply or any explanation of the public interest issues that you feel may apply.
Given the Government’s commitment to openness, I cannot conceive of any reasons why this information should not be supplied. I certainly cannot understand why it is taking so long to provide the answers.
I look forward to hearing from you shortly. In the meantime, I am copying this letter to Sir Christopher Graham, the Information Commissioner.”
You might almost think the Home Office had something to hide ….