Good on spin, bad on justice
30 Apr 2009

chris_ames_140x140jpg1 The Ministry of Justice was more concerned with spinning the ‘Titan prisons’ controversy than complying with its own Freedom of Information Act, says
Chris Ames

Justice Secretary Jack Straw has been caught up in a new spin row after attempts to manage press coverage of his prisons policy. The Ministry of Justice delayed releasing a list of possible sites for Titan prisons until the media had been briefed that Straw had scrapped the idea.

The MoJ claims cock-up rather than conspiracy. Either way, the department responsible for the Freedom of Information Act (FOI) has an appalling record of non-compliance with its provisions. Not to mention that it was Straw who did severe damage to the Act by blocking release of the pre-Iraq war cabinet minutes.

On Friday last week the MoJ published a list of 76 sites it had considered for the new supersize jails, which were to house up to 2,500 prisoners each. The disclosure was ordered last month by Richard Thomas, the Information Commissioner. Under Thomas’s ruling the MoJ was required to publish the list by Thursday at the latest, and risked court proceedings for contempt by failing to comply.

But the list was published only after media outlets had been briefed that plans for Titan prisons had been abandoned, to be replaced by five new jails holding 1,500 prisoners each.

The information was requested by Tory MP John Baron a year ago. Baron told me: ‘We should have had this information on Thursday. They seem to have been spinning in the media before complying with the ruling.’

When Straw formally announced the policy change in the House of Commons on Monday, he confirmed that he had deliberately chosen to withhold the list of potential sites to avoid controversy, ‘precisely so as not unnecessarily to worry local residents’. The tactic was not entirely successful, as a number of local newspapers assumed that sites named in the list might host the new jails.

Baron was not called to speak in the debate, but Straw was criticised by shadow Justice Secretary Dominic Grieve, who expressed his ‘disappointment’ that the government had once again ‘trailed a major policy announcement in the weekend press, with the Government’s usual disdain for this House.’

In response, Straw claimed that, had Grieve been in his department, it would have been ‘palpable’ that Straw ‘did not appreciate the leaks’. But on Friday the Independent had quoted ‘government sources’ as insisting ‘that Mr Straw decided to retreat because of the strong objections raised by penal reform groups as well as local opposition…’. These were the same reasons given by Straw on Monday.

The Ministry of Justice has tried to distance itself from the leaks, but — like Straw — has declined to make an on-the-record statement denying responsibility. A spokesperson told me that the information was released in good faith and that failure to comply with Thomas’s ruling was ‘an administrative error’.

The Information Commissioner’s Office said that the apparent breach would be brought to the attention of its enforcement and good practice team.

The MoJ has a very poor record on compliance with the FOI act, which Straw was responsible for introducing when he was Home Secretary. Ironically, on the very day that it should have published the information on Titan prisons, the MoJ did publish the latest statistics showing levels of compliance with the Act among government departments and other state bodies. These statistics did not reflect well on the MoJ.

The department managed to answer only 51 per cent of requests within the time guidline, compared to an average of 87 per cent for all monitored bodies. It also had a very poor record of releasing information as requested, granting only 33 per cent of requests in full, compared to an average of 57 per cent.

Last year, Thomas crtitcised the National Offender Management Service, which runs the prisons system, for its poor record on FOI.

Baron has written to Straw complaining about the late release of the information on Titan prisons and asking him to look into ‘whether there is a systemic problem within the Ministry of Justice when it comes to making information available’.

Either way, the MoJ’s non-compliance with the legislation for which it is responsible does not look good, and its parallel efforts to manage the media only make things worse.

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