Eric Pickles talks about transparency. A lot. In fact it is one of his departments ‘watchwords’. He has been hailed as a transparency champion by the taxpayers’ alliance, and his efforts to make local government more transparent have gained support from some unlikely places.
But it seems Big E has one rule for councils and another for himself.
The Local Government Chronicle reports today that DCLG officials have refused to answer a freedom of information request about whether Mr Pickles took legal advice in the in the wake of adversely critical comments about the electoral commission chair, Jenny Watson. Ministers declined to renew her position as a board member of the audit commission in September.
A senior DCLG ‘source’ was quoted in The Times earlier this year saying that Jenny Watson had “built her career on incompetence”, “milked the taxpayer” and was “not fit for the role”. The Local Government Chronicle reports that following the publication of the comments Pickles sought internal legal advice as to whether the comments could be considered defamatory and whether there were grounds for legal action.
A source close to the department said that DCLG’s lawyers gave Pickles advice that the comments (which LGC says did not come from a departmental official or a press officer) could be considered defamatory. Pickles then allegedly sought external legal advice.
Pickles has previously talked about the vital importance of transparency, and stated that it is key to allowing the public to hold politicians to account saying:
People should be able to hold politicians and public bodies to account over how their hard earned cash is being spent and decisions made on their behalf. They can only do that effectively if they have the information they need at their fingertips.
But it appears the rules don’t apply to the man himself. DCLG officials have refused to answer the FoI, saying that they are “unable to either confirm nor deny” that it holds the information requested. However, guidance from the information commissioner on FoI requests says that departments have a duty to confirm or deny whether the information requested is held.
His department’s refusal stands in contrast with Pickles’ own campaign for transparency, in which he’s said:
Being open about how taxpayers’ money is spent will push central and local government into rooting out waste and duplication. That’s why we’re throwing open the shutters and bringing the full glare of the public’s eye onto spending. This new transparent era means a new way of thinking for councils but I’m showing them it’s possible by publishing more of my department’s spending online.
Come on, Eric. We thought this was the new transparent era? What have you got to hide? Who made the comments? And how much did legal advice about this gaffe cost the taxpayer?