UK government refusing to disclose information on its Syrian refugee programme

There was a Tribunal hearing on Thursday 12th July on the issue of the Home Office not disclosing information in relation to the Crown Dependencies and the possibility of them being involved with the Syrian refugee programme.

Home office refusing to disclose information on Syrian refugees

In summary, the Home Office refused to provide certain information in relation to their dealings with the Crown Dependencies and the Syrian refugee programme, during the 2015/2016 period.

This dragged on with an appeal to the Information Commissioner being unsuccessful,  but then being appealed by me to a Tribunal Panel.

The background is as follows:

When it became known that the governments of Guernsey, Jersey and the Isle of Man had approached the UK government with a view to taking some Syrian refugees, there was concern expressed by the general public in all communities.

There were Freedom of Information requests made to all three governments, although initially, the Isle of Man did not have such laws in place to put in any request.

There was also a Freedom of Information request put to the UK Home office on the subject.

Essentially all FOI responses were evasive in nature and either gave misleading, false or denials of much of the information asked for.

In respect of the UK Home Office, they refused to release what was asked for by me on 23d August 2016:

“ Details of the approaches made by Guernsey, Jersey and the Isle of Man governments in respect of assisting with the Syrian refugee situation.

Please provide copies of the correspondence between them the UK government concerning this.”

The Home Office confirmed it held such information but refused to provide it.

They attempted to use FOI exemptions in order to avoid disclosure.

This was contested by me in an Appeal to the Information Commissioner on 3rd February 2017, who rejected my submission on 30th October 2017.

I then exercised my right of Appeal on 30th November 2017.

This then involved a process which resulted in a Tribunal Panel Hearing in person, taking place in England on 12th July 2018.

Tribunal Panel Hearing

The Tribunal examined a number of factors but fundamentally they looked at the interpretation of the law in relation to this issue.

I had had always been hampered by being a legally unqualified person up against not just qualified people, but those who were versed in the finely detailed workings of the FOI laws and knowledge of case examples.

Although the Panel Chairman assured me that this was not an uncommon situation and that they would take this into account, it is a disadvantage I would have readily done without.

However, I did inform the Panel that I had not been successful in obtaining pro bono legal assistance.

It has struck me that on occasions that when individuals do Britain down, they have no difficulty in obtaining legal assistance, legal aid, or otherwise, but when individuals stand up for Britain’s interests, there seems to be no organisation or person who can help them.

Tribunal Panel conclusions due in a couple of weeks:

The Panel agreed to take some belated legal case examples from the Home Office’s legal team, which I have not been able to respond to, so the Tribunal conclusions are unlikely to be reached for a couple of weeks.

Some of the case:

On the detail of this case, one aspect has been whether the Minister who authorised the non- disclosure of information was acting “reasonably” in doing so.

He gave this “opinion” on 8th November 2016.

This Minister, the Rt. Hon Robert Goodwill, MP, only held his office for about a year.

How can such a Minister be deemed to be acting “reasonably” when it was admitted he had not seen all the information he authorised to be non-disclosed, nor had he consulted with the Crown Dependencies or any government Minister with Crown Dependencies’ responsibilities on the issue?

Another aspect has been the emphasis of the Home Office in maintaining that the public interest is effectively that of ensuring a national policy is successful, rather than the public interest being that the public are interested in the subject and need to be fully informed in order to debate that policy.

It was admitted that a Home Office reason for non-disclosure was because they were concerned about local authorities in the UK not signing up to their Syrian VPRS (Vulnerable Persons Resettlement Scheme).

One of my points on this aspect was you do not make a poor policy successful by hiding information. It cannot be in the national public interest to pursue a policy which has flaws which you are unwilling to put right. It cannot be in the national public interest to not have transparency, because that results in uninformed debate and a much-reduced prospect of bringing about a better policy.

So there is a danger that misuse of FOI laws can bring about bad national policy decisions. Secrecy is rarely conducive to good government.

My own view is that if the Home Office is successful on this non-disclosure, then it will be used as a precedent for non-disclosure on other issues as well.

That will be very bad news for those who believe in openness and transparency in government.

It has also been stated that a reason for non-disclosure, is that it would make the Crown Dependencies less likely to engage on other issues in the future, particularly as this issue is one of voluntary participation.

However, will it help any other political scheme for which participation by local authorities is voluntary if it transpires that information has been withheld from them?

And what about disclosure for the benefit of the interests of their public?

On the Crown Dependencies themselves, the bottom line is that the UK government not only has the responsibility for their “good governance”, it has always had the right to legislate directly for them and has done so in the past, even though sparingly.

So the issue of whether a scheme is voluntary is of little difference to the fact it is voluntary for local authorities, too.

Indeed if participation is voluntary, then there has to be a greater obligation to be open and transparent with the information on the issue.

Ed – Part II will be published tomorrow.

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