Watchdog attacked in battle over ID cards

Government takes gloves off in fight to maintain project secrecy

The government has attacked its own information watchdog for failing to understand the workings of Whitehall, as it gears up to fight an order to publish confidential reports into the ID cards programme.

The Office of Government Commerce, which is part of HM Treasury, claimed in legal papers that, by ordering the publication of Gateway reviews on identity cards, the information commissioner had unreasonably rejected clear evidence that publication of the project reports would cause "substantial harm".

The case, due to be decided in a four-day hearing at the Information Tribunal in March, could set a legal precedent that would force government departments to routinely publish Gateway reviews of public sector IT projects requested under the Freedom of Information Act, in line with a Computer Weekly campaign.

The Office of Government Commerce argued in papers submitted to the tribunal that information commissioner Richard Thomas had failed to understand the need for civil servants to be able to offer frank advice to Gateway reviewers without fear that their views could be made public.

"The Commissioner's Office has no particular expertise in the field in which the OGC operates, namely the confidential review for effectiveness and efficiency of programmes and projects of a commercial nature, or including substantial commercial content," it said.

It added that "in the real world" civil servants would "feel inhibited from providing adverse information or expressing adverse opinions" if there was a risk that the information could be disclosed to the public.

The document claimed that publication of the Gateway reviews could damage IT projects if the information was presented out of context.

"Misquotation or out-of context quotation of frank and candid observations or comments could damage public confidence," it said.

These claims were disputed by the information commissioner. Documents submitted to the tribunal accused the OGC of treating Gateway reviews as though they were absolutely exempt from disclosure.

"No explanation is given as to why this category of report is particularly likely to be misunderstood as compared with other documents generated by public authorities," the information commissioner said.

The OGC's main grounds for non-disclosure

  • Gateway reviews are exempt from disclosure under Freedom of Information Act since they relate to the OGC auditing role
  • Civil servants would feel inhibited from expressing adverse views if reviews were published
  • Review process would be delayed if reports are written for publication
  • Risk that published reviews could be misquoted or taken out of context
  • Information commissioner has not adequately explained the public interest involved.


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