Recently in Office of Government Commerce Category

According to the Financial Times the Office of Government Commerce, a creature of Her Majesty's Treasury, headed by Chancellor soon to be Prime Minister Gordon Brown is appealing against the Information Tribunal's decision to uphold the Information Commissioner's decision to order the OGC to publish in full, the documents requested in our Freedom of Information Act for the Stage Zero and two Pre-Stage Zero Gateway Review reports into the Home Office's controversial and hugely expensive Identity Cards Programme.

The Freedom of Information Act 2000 Section 59 Appeals from decision of Tribunal does allow for an appeal against the decision of the Information Tribunal to be heard by the High Court, but only on a point of law

59. Any party to an appeal to the Tribunal under section 57 may appeal from the decision of the Tribunal on a point of law to the appropriate court; and that court shall be-

(a) the High Court of Justice in England if the address of the public authority is in England or Wales,
(b) the Court of Session if that address is in Scotland, and
(c) the High Court of Justice in Northern Ireland if that address is in Northern Ireland.

We are mystified as to what "points of law" OGC can possibly argue before the High Court.

How much money in legal fees will all these pointless appeals end up costing the taxpayers ?

Gordon Brown is already reneging on his recent promises about "open government" or public transparency and accountability. He does not have to wait to take over as Prime Minister, he could have ordered the documents to be released disclosed already, since the OGC is directly under his control as Chancellor of the Exchequer. It seems unlikely that such an infamous micro-manager, would not be fully aware of the OGC decision to waste further public money on legal costs in this matter.

We are awaiting details of any future High Court dates for this case, which could possibly be done via written submissions without a formal hearing. Hopefully the High Court will decide to reject the OGC appeal.

A glimpse of the Information Tribunal Hearing

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Yesterday, I managed to sit in on part of the Information Tribunal Hearing which was considering the appeal by the UK Government via Gordon Brown's Treasury agency, the Office of Government Commerce, against the Decision Notice by the Information Commissioner.

See this OGC Gateway Reviews of the Identity Cards Programme category archive for the lengthy saga stemming from my original Freedom of Information Act request in January 2005.

The Information Tribunal hearing sat for 4 days last week, from Monday to Friday, except for Thursday.

I managed to attend as a member of the public, for about two and a half hours on Friday afternoon, basically just to get a flavour of the proceedings, and to put some faces to the names I have seen in print and online over the last few months, since the appeal process was initiated.

The Office of the Information Commissioner has emailed us, after we reminded them about our outstanding complaint (which has been with them for 6 months) regarding the Office for Government Commerce's decsion not to release their Gateway Reviews of the Home Office's Identity Cards Programme:

"As you will appreciate this is a particularly sensitive issue and will require very careful and considered attention before we are able to make a decision on this case."

The timeline so far:

The Government's response to our request for the publication of the, now out of date, Office of Government Commerce Gateway Reviews regarding the initial stages of the Home Office's Identity Cards scheme were not satisfactory.

The next step under the new and untested Freedom of Information Act procedures is to request an internal review. It is potentially a promising sign that the OGC "will make every effort to respond to you by Thursday 24th March 2005", i.e. within a month.

This does leave enough time before the presumed date of the General Election, for the next stage of complaint escalation, an appeal to the Information Commissioner to review the case and issue a legally binding Decision Notice.

After 35 working days, including a 15 working day "public interest balancing exercise" we have recived a disappointingly strong>minimal disclosure from the Home Office and the Office for Governmet Commerce regarding our FOIA request for the Pre-Zero and Stage Zero Gateway Reviews of the Identity Cards scheme.

We were hoping for and expecting, given that these Gateway Reviews are too early in the process to contain any commercially sensitive information, and since the Government is not yet officially in a formal procurement phase to spend billions of pounds of our money on their ID Card and centralised online biometric National Identity Register scheme. We were hoping for a view of what technical , financial and other project risks were considered at the outset of this multi-billion pound project, and what alternatives, if any were considered, and why they were rejected.

We would have understood if these Gateway Reviews had been published with the names of consultants and civil servants redacted or censored, and perhaps with some financial details similarly obscured (but not the overall bottom line financial costs). Similarly we would have expected to see the overall "Traffic Light" (green/amber/red) status of the project. Remember that these Gateway Reviews were conducted in 2003 and 2004, and that any "bad" results back then, could easily no longer be valid, following appropriate corrective action by the Home Office Identity Cards Programme team.

However we have got none of this out of the coordinated responseses from the Home Office and the Office for Government Commerce "axis of weasel", who managed to delay even this useless "disclosure" until after the Identity Cards Bill finished all its stages in the House of Commons.

Both Departments chose to email letters with Adobe .pdf attachments, the OGC chose to add a Security setting to prevent copy and pasting of the text. The Hom,e Office did not and their letter although slightly different contains the same disclosure attachment.

What is the point of the Office for Government Commerce, if it does not bother to report its Gateway Reviews either to the Public Accounts Committe, to Parliament or to the public under the Freedom of Information Act.

Currently there is no evidence that has been made public of any large scale Government projects, especially thaose involving complicated Information technology which have been properly managed to meet their original objectives, budegets and timescales as a result of the OGC Gateway Review process.

Our next step will probably be to request a formal "internal review" of the decision, which seems to be the current way of delaying any legally binding decsion by the Information Commissioner, presumably until after the presumed date of the General Election in May.

Read the Home Office reply and "disclosure":

The Home Office have also replied to the Freedom for Information Act request for the OGC Gateway Reviews, which we submitted to them at the same time as to the Office of Government Commerce.

There is policy coordination going on between the departments, as they have replied in almost the same words, quoting the same Exemptions and the estimate of an extra 15 working days whilst they consider the "balance of the public interest" i.e. after the Identity Cards Bill has finished its remaining stages in the House of Commons on Thursday 10th February 2005, before going on to the House of Lords.

Home Office reply:

The Office of Government Commerce has replied to our request for the Gateway Reviews regarding the Identity Cards scheme, on the 20th working day after having received the FOIA request.

So, having managed not to publish the information requested in time for it to be considered as part of the debate during the House of Commons Committee Stage of the Identity Cards Bill, they are now planning not to publish anything until after the final Report and Third Reading debates in the House of Commons on Thursday 10th February 2005. Is this a mere coincidence, or is this political calculation ?

They confirm that they hold the requested information but mention a couple of Exemptions:

section 33 Audit Functions and for parts of the information, section 35 Formulation of Government Policy

These Exemptions are subject to the "balance of the public interest".

Accordingly they are conducting a "Balancing exercise" and they estimate that this will take a further 15 additional working days.

It does seem astonishing that it will take so long to decide - perhaps they really will have to discuss this at Cabinet level, as was implied by Lord Falconer.

Who would have guessed that our little FOIA request could possibly cause such deliberations and considerations within the Government 8-)

The reply from the Office of Government Commerce:

The Government still seems to be dithering about publishing the OGC Gateway Reviews of the Identity Cards scheme, according to a Written Answer to a Parliamentary Question yesterday:

"Identity Cards

Mr. Oaten: To ask the Chancellor of the Exchequer if he will publish (a) the Office of Government Commerce's (OGC's) Gateway Zero review into the identity cards scheme and (b) all other OGC reviews of the scheme. [208284]

Mr. Boateng: I am currently reviewing whether there is any Gateway Review or other OGC review which should be published regarding the identity cards scheme and I will write to the hon. Member as soon as these considerations are complete."

The 20 working days deadline for our FOIA request for exactly these OGC Gateway Reviews expires today

About this blog

This United Kingdom based blog has been spawned from Spy Blog, and is meant to provide a place to track our Freedom of Information Act 2000 requests to United Kingdom Government and other Public Authorities.

If you have suggestions for other FOIA requests,  bearing in mind the large list of exemptions, then email them to us, or use the comments facility on this blog, and we will see  what we can do, without you yourself having to come under the direct scrutiny of  "Sir Humphrey Appleby" or his minions.

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