The 'difficulty' in gaining Cabinet Office FOI requests

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Over Christmas, an odd story emerged - two Conservative special advisers were barred from standing to be Tory MPs for breaches of the party's rules, making them look like rather principled chaps.

In brief, Nick Timothy and Stephen Parkinson - who work for the Home Secretary Theresa May - were told to campaign in a by-election if they wished to remain on the Tory parliamentary candidates list, like all other potential candidates for the party.

And, quite rightly, they refused.

As special advisers, they are bound by the Special Adviser's Code. It states, very clearly, that "special advisers must not take part in national political activities". This category includes "canvassing on behalf of a [parliamentary] candidate".

No wiggle room

The rules are utterly clear - there is no wiggle room.

After being asked by the party to campaign, Mr Parkinson wrote to the Cabinet Office to check his reading of the rules - that they were forbidden from doing so - was correct. He did not receive a reply.

Without written clarification that there was some element of the rules they were missing, both men refused to canvass. They were surely right to do so - and the Conservatives have behaved a little oddly in striking them off on those grounds.

This is because the rules around special advisers are not for the benefit of officials or the special advisers themselves. They were introduced to reassure voters who are suspicious of why ministers feel they need to find employment for their pals.

And that is why, while there might be grounds for exemptions, the Cabinet Office ought not be handing them out in secret.

Yet it appeared they might have been doing that. Other special advisers have canvassed and become parliamentary candidates, in apparent breach of the code.

'Striking' response

So I asked the Cabinet Office, using the Freedom of Information Act, whether any guidance on canvassing and standing for parliament had been issued to any special advisers.

The reply I got is striking for two reasons.

First, they said it would cost too much to find this advice. That is one of the stock answers you often get from the Cabinet Office, Britain's most secretive department.

This is far from a one-off: see, for example, here. Or here. Or here. Or here. Or even here.

Roger Smethurst, a Freedom of Information official in the department, estimated "it will take us in excess of 3.5 working days" to locate the information. This answer strikes me as - how to put this delicately? - rather unlikely to be correct.

My request stated that the advice would probably have gone via Sue Gray, the Civil Service's head of ethics (to whom Mr Parkinson wrote), or Sir Jeremy Heywood, the head of the Civil Service. Do that duo have really messy desks? Or just hand out loads of this guidance?

FOI requests 'not respected'

Second, note that the Cabinet Office officials didn't answer: "There is no such guidance beyond the special adviser's code, which is on the website."

Odd. So there is presumably such advice and I will eventually get it. But this strategy delays my access to it - possibly until after the election.

I am writing about this because requesters who seek simple information like this run into these problems all the time.

Despite the efforts of FOI officers, the Freedom of Information Act is not well respected within Whitehall. That is an important and overlooked fact.

The Cabinet Office is a bizarre institution - the core of the department is a bureaucracy without a function that goes beyond bureaucracy. But it administers a lot, including the prime minister's office, and adjudicates the special adviser's code. It really matters.

So why hasn't the information commissioner, whose job it is to enforce the act, done more to bring it into line? That's a theme to which I'll return very soon.