Over the bank holiday weekend senior civil servants running the country took an extraordinary decision to ban the public from seeing information because they thought it was so controversial that it would disrupt election campaigning.
They decided to protect candidates from being asked questions on the issue and thought it best the public be left in ignorance about the facts.
What was this issue? Not some horrendous economic figure, some real facts on immigration. No, it was decision not to reveal which farmers and agribusinesses scooped up some £3 billion from the taxpayer from EU farm subsidies last year.
On Friday statistics were published simultaneously in the other 26 EU countries revealing who had been paid what – it is part of a victory by European journalists to force countries under freedom of information acts to release all this previously secret information.
But in London – against an EU directive - the information was banned. The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs website says: “Due to the general election campaign, this website will not be updated with the 2009 figures until after the election.”
A letter from a DEFRA official to Jack Thurston, head of farmsubsidy.org, which campaigns for transparency for EU payments, says why:
“This decision reflects the need to maintain, and be seen to maintain, the impartiality of the UK Civil Service, given the potential risk that CAP payment information relating to any individuals involved in the election might be used as part of election campaigning.”
Yet ministries continue to publish information on hospital admissions and roads just to name two. And in Scotland because of devolved government – they have taken the opposite decision. They published their figures over the weekend –revealing that 19,000 farmers and agribusinesses shared nearly £600m of public money and the world has not fallen apart north of the border.
So who does this protect? Initial research by farmsubsidy.org reveals that possibly up to 70 of the 650 Tory candidates standing at the election could be receiving some sort of subsidy. Up to half a dozen UKIP candidates- who campaign against the EU- could be receiving EU cash as well as a smattering of Liberal Democrat and BNP candidates. On the Tory side they have discovered that the declared postcode for receipt of EU subsidies is often the same one as used by a local Conservative Association, suggesting that leading officials of the local parties are also receiving subsidies. These are all taken from the previous year’s subsidy figures.
Yet we won’t know, thanks to Whitehall, until after the election- even though the EU has made it clear in an article in the EU Observer today that it is disappointed with Britain and intends to write to the new government pointing out it is not in line with the EU directive.
Frankly disappointment is too weak a word. It is scandal that unelected officials should decide what information should be made public and when. The decision is also partisan in that it appears to protect opposition party candidates more than Labour candidates from scrutiny – particularly in the case of the Conservatives.
Sir Gus O’Donnell, the Cabinet Secretary, should reverse this now. Otherwise it bodes very badly if we are in “ hung Parliament “ territory when Whitehall will be effectively running the country while politicians sort out a new government. If officials are going to select what information the public should know and what should be kept secret, they are exceeding their brief.
This blog is also on the Guardian’s Comment is Free website.