The Coalition's self-appointed champion of governmental transparency, Eric Pickles, has been criticised for failing to release information over potentially defamatory comments made about chair of the Electoral Commission, Jenny Watson, who his Department of Community and Local Government (DCLG) accused of building her "career on incompetence" and "milking the taxpayer".
The coalition’s self-appointed champion of governmental transparency, Eric Pickles, has been criticised for failing to release information over potentially defamatory comments made about the chair of the Electoral Commission, Jenny Watson, whom Pickles’s Department for Communities and Local Government (DCLG) accused of building her “career on incompetence” and “milking the taxpayer” (£).
The Local Government Chronicle (£) demanded to know whether Pickles, through a Freedom of Information (FoI) request, had received legal advice about the defamatory comments made against Ms Watson – whose role at the Audit Commission was ended following chaotic scenes at polling stations in May’s General Election.
However, Pickles’s department did not comply with the FoI and refused to declare whether he had received the legal advice. The DCLG now faces an appeal from the Local Government Chronicle to the Information Commissioner – who could force them to release the information.
Pickles has previously spoken on the importance of governmental transparency and praised councils for improving transparency (included details of expense claims of £500 or more). His own department’s publicity even called him a “transparency trailblazer” earlier this year.
Labour MP Tom Watson wrote to Pickles on October 28th, urging him to comply with the FoI request, and was critical of his conduct:
“You use public money to protect your own back after you or your ministers have been unlawfully shouting your mouth off, and it’s ‘not in the public interest to know’?
“Transparency cuts both ways. You can’t stuff your face all day with new politics cake and still have it left to eat when you’re hungry in the middle of the.”
Pickles is believed to have received two sets of legal advice on the potentially defamatory comments, which included the phrase:
“We are now having a bonfire of the quangocrats.”
DCLG’s comments were widely reported by the national media, including The Times and The Daily Mail. However, the department said:
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“We do not consider the public interest in knowing whether the Department and the Secretary of State may have sought or received such legal advice and the nature and content of such legal advice, if any had been provided, to be particularly high.”