The NIO, Freedom of Information, and disclosure

As far as I recall, public bodies aren’t required to publish FOI disclosures, but it’s quite good practice to do so. The NIO do (or at least seem to – the list is remarkably spartan) and it makes interesting reading. In particular the most recent disclosure has some interesting information in it.
You will notice in the letter, care is taken to remove details of both the questioner and the Civil Servant who is responding. Not so much care is taken with the file name.

On the cover letter, bullet point three outlines that backbench MP Peter Hain wrote in a former life to Ian Paisley on 9th November 2006 about St Andrews issues. It is noted that one paragraph of this letter has been hidden in pursuance of section 36 of the Act on the authorisation of an unnamed NIO minister (take your pick from the two names available). This information is apparently “still subject to discussion” by the parties, and the NIO ministerial team deemed it in the public interest to withhold said paragraph.

It’s probably a safe bet that this refers to the devolution of Policing and Justice, particularly given that it follows a paragraph on the formation of the Institutional Review Committee. There are some interesting questions raised by the decision to envoke a section 36 exemption. Page 6 of the disclosure is the now infamous Ian Jnr letter from David Hanson. They could may well could have gotten away with an exemption of this entire letter, almost certainly items 4 and 6 on it. The Causeway affair was subject to Executive discussion, and therefore surely could have exempted at LEAST this line of that letter.

Slugger understands that Ministers who sign exemption orders have very little part to play with FOI beyond autographing, and that Civil Servants generally make decisions based on a “liberal” reading of the legislation, that disposes them towards disclosure whenever possible. It’s not possible to attempt to analyse the thought processes of the Civil Servants without seeing the withheld paragraph, but the decisions taken in this disclosure surely raise questions. It was put to me that perhaps the paragraph related to intelligence. But that would be a section 23 or 24 exemption, not 36. The section used to exempt the paragraph tells us that it related specifically and exclusively to avoid any potential prejudice of the work of the Executive. So why the devolution of policing and justice, but not the future of the Causeway? When withholding information in January, why go heavy on the hard cop in February, by releasing what has been described to me by a respected commentator as “highly questionable” opinion polls, and shouting to anyone and everyone who will listen that it must happen and happen soon? Did the NIO see the May date for devolution as realistic in December when compiling this request? Were they using this as leverage?

In case they were, and have in light of recent pronouncements changed their minds, my request for the paragraph to be released was signed for by the NIO post room on the 28th February. I await the refusal letter with interest.