Written Evidence from James Coombs (FOI 14)
I am not affiliated to any political organisation, but would describe myself as someone who cares passionately that those in authority should be held to account for their actions. My own opinion is that the Cabinet Office ignored their own Code of Conduct and rode roughshod over the law to avoid transparency but I will present the facts and leave it to the Committee to determine motive. Insofar as the matters to which I refer are within my own knowledge they are true; insofar as they are not within my own knowledge, for example newspaper reports, they are true to the best of my knowledge, information, and belief.
In September 2020 I made the following request for information under the FOIA for:
‘… a full copy of the investigation into harassment or bullying by home Secretary Priti Patel carried out by Helen MacNamara and Alex Allan’. (Emphasis added.)
All correspondence between myself and the Cabinet Office can be found on the My Society website https://www.whatdotheyknow.com/request/alleged_bullying_by_priti_patel but the sequence of events really started five months earlier when the Sun and Telegraph newspapers both announced that Home Secretary Priti Patel had been ‘cleared of bullying staff after official investigation’. The Sun relies on ‘a Whitehall source’ and the fact that the Telegraph ran the story. I’m unable to read the Telegraph as I am not a subscriber.
The following table contains a chronological summary of my request, interspersed with reporting in the national news. It shows the date of each event and the number of work[ing] days elapsed since I requested this information.
The Sun: PRITI PROBE Home Secretary Priti Patel ‘cleared of bullying staff after official investigation’, report claims
The Telegraph: Priti Patel cleared of claims that she bullied staff after investigation by Cabinet Secretary
BBC News: Priti Patel probe findings should be made public 'as soon as possible' - Labour
"It is understood the report has been completed and the outcome is likely to be known in the coming days."
BBC News: Patel bullying inquiry must be published 'immediately' - Labour
"The report is understood to have been completed."
I submitted my request for a 'full copy of the investigation'. The Cabinet Office acknowledged this the same day.
The Guardian: Priti Patel faces Tribunal questioning over alleged bullying https://www.theguardian.com/politics/2020/oct/05/priti-patel-faces-employment-tribunal-over-alleged-bullying-philip-rutnam
I asked for an update and said I would refer the matter to the Information Commissioner if I did not get an answer by 16 October. The CO apologised but didn't respond to my request.
The Independent: Boris Johnson could block release of investigation into Priti Patel bullying, head of civil service says
Simon Case, who became Cabinet Secretary last month, said it would be up to the prime minister whether the results of the investigation into the Home Secretary's conduct ever saw the light of day.
But eight months later the report is still unpublished, despite Cabinet minister Michael Gove saying at the time that it was "vital this investigation is concluded as quickly as possible".
I referred the lack of any reply to my request to the Information Commissioner.
The ICO wrote to the Cabinet office (case reference IC-66340-W7S5) and asked them to provide a response to the request.
BBC News: “Summary of official report into bullying is published”
It is clear from the BBC reporting that this is only a summary. The article also explains that the report’s author, Sir Alex Allen, resigned after the PM rejected his findings.
Cabinet Office: issue a statement, “Ministerial Code investigation” https://www.gov.uk/government/news/ministerial-code-investigation
The cabinet office replied to me:
‘As you may be aware, on 20 November the Government published Sir Alex’s findings on the Home Secretary’s conduct and an accompanying government statement.’
The response provided by the Cabinet Office, 50 working days after I requested it and the resignation of Sir Alex Allen was very clearly not a 'full copy of the investigation' which I had requested.
I asked the Cabinet Office to carry out an internal review, saying that the response did not relate to the request I’d made (which I admit was not strictly correct but a reflection of the frustration I was feeling.) There was not doubt that information did not meet the request I’d made.
Having not received any reply to my request for an internal review I asked the Information Commissioner to intervene again.
After the Information Commissioner intervened again, the cabinet Office replied to say that I had not explained why I wanted them to review their response. I replied the same day saying they had stonewalled me for ten weeks before referring me to a summary written by an unknown author which was not the information that I had requested.
BBC News: Philip Rutnam £340k payout to official after Priti Patel bullying claims. https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-politics-56281781
Unusually, since a complaint to the ICO would have been the next stage in the process, the Cabinet Office provided me with a second internal review. This denied that there was any document which could be described as a "report" (despite the vast amount of press coverage using this exact term.) It went on to say that 'fact finding work' was held by the Cabinet Office but that was exempt from disclosure.
On 19 August 2021 the Information Commissioner wrote to me to say that they had raised their concerns with the Cabinet Office over their handling of my request (ICO ref, IC-66340-W7S5). They also accepted my referral to them under s.50 of the FOIA to investigate whether the Cabinet Office were entitled to rely on the exemptions they claimed apply to the requested information in their response to me dated 9 March 2021 (ICO ref, IC-85524-J6K8).
I have strong views on whether these exemptions can apply to the report in its entirety. I keep an open mind on whether these exemptions may apply to parts of a report which I have not seen. Either way it would be premature to pre-judge what is currently a ‘live’ issue the Information Commissioner is investigating. The evidence I would like to present to the Committee is what appear to be the Cabinet Office’s very intentional delays in providing me with a substantive reply to my request.
Section 10 of the Freedom of Information Act requires public authorities to reply both promptly and within 20 working days, those being two separate requirements. The first substantive response I received was 120 working days after I submitted the request. I would not have received any substantive response to my request, had it not been for two interventions from the Information Commissioner.
There is considerable public interest in understanding how our elected representatives behave. My personal view is that the above chronology provides clear evidence that the Cabinet Office have done their utmost to delay or prevent altogether disclosure of information essential to any healthy operating democracy, but I leave it to the Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee to determine whether or not this was deliberate. I’d like to thank the committee for looking into this problem and asking for evidence which can help it determine the fact.
I would recommend the committee invite a representative from the Institute for Government to give oral evidence. The IFG provide objective quantitative evidence on government departments’ compliancy with transparency as demonstrated by the following article on Communications and transparency: