Are Conservative ministers playing ‘party politics’ with national security over Jeremy Corbyn?

Summary

On how comments made in a party political capacity has led to repeated breaches of the Freedom of Information Act 2000 by Whitehall.

I don’t normally throw accusations around like this lightly. If it were any other political party saying such things, my response would be the same: you cannot use ‘national security’ as a party political weapon. It’s too important an issue.

Hear the Defence Secretary in his own words here.

The Prime Minister’s political Twitter account repeated that claim here, and Conservative politicians followed this through repeating the claims. The really stupid thing is that a few days later, the Prime Minister was shaking hands with said threat to national security.

It’s one thing to say: “Mr Corbyn’s policies would weaken our national security” but it is quite another to say that he is ‘a threat to national security’. Do you see the difference? So naturally, people went onto the Freedom of Information website What Do They Know? and threw one information request after another at Whitehall.

As Mark Thomas said in his talk in Cambridge yesterday, if politicians are going to say stupid & silly things, they are going to get stupid & silly responses that clog up the system. Which is what happened. Whitehall’s response was a standard communications response – the comments were made in a party political context, therefore all enquiries should be sent to Conservative Party Headquarters. The problem with this is that most members of the public neither know nor care about the constitutional difference between David Cameron as Prime Minister and David Cameron as Leader of the Conservative Party. Unfortunately for Whitehall, the Freedom of Information Act 2000 also does not make the distinction between requests for information made following statements made by ministers in a party political capacity vs a ministerial capacity. It is here that Whitehall (in this context, any Government department that has received FoI requests about Corbyn & national security comments by ministers) has potentially broken the law – specifically Section 1(1) of the Freedom of Information Act.

“In what way have they broken the law? This is a very serious allegation!”

Absolutely – one I do not make lightly.

I won an appeal against the Home Office over the release of social media guidance – and in that appeal persuaded the appeals officer to conclude that the Home Office had broken the law in how it handled my original request. Note my appeal for a review here.

“What should Cabinet Office/Number 10 have done?”

It doesn’t matter what the context of ministerial remarks/comments were, what matters is the request for information. The law requires authorities receiving the request ***must*** state whether they hold the information requested (subject to S24 – which I explain below). The copied & pasted text from Number 10 is as follows:

“Thank you for your email of 13 September about a tweet issued by Mr Cameron
in his capacity as Leader of the Conservative Party following the election of Mr
Jeremy Corbyn MP as Leader of the Labour Party.

This is a matter for the Conservative Party and you should therefore contact it
about this issue.”

By not stating whether they hold the information or not, and by not mentioning any exemptions where the duty to confirm or deny does not apply, I conclude that Number 10 is in breach of the Freedom of Information Act 2000.

Therefore, for each request for information about Mr Corbyn and ministerial comments on national security, departments need to respond properly and check their files to confirm that no information as requested by people sending in requests actually exists.

“What if it does exist?”

Then civil servants have to go through the process of assessing the information to see if any of the exemptions apply – in particular Section 24 on national security.

S24 is an interesting exemption because if the release of information held would compromise national security, civil servants can use that exemption and not have to state whether specific pieces of information are held or not. (S24(2)). But as I mentioned above, Number 10 has not done this. They’ve simply pointed people to Conservative Party HQ rather than applying a Section 24 exemption. Note too that a Section 24 exemption also requires a ministerial sign off to confirm that the information concerned would, if released compromise national security. (S24(3)).

“What if no information exists?”

Then we have no evidence that Mr Corbyn is a threat to national security as the Prime Minister and the Defence Secretary state, and accordingly they are playing politics with a very serious issue. Ministers of the Crown of any political party should know better.

7 thoughts on “Are Conservative ministers playing ‘party politics’ with national security over Jeremy Corbyn?

  1. Corbyn has made some “interesting” associations in the past and the Tories are playing politics with it. Frankly this is a totally legitimate line of attack (given it seems to reflect Corbyn’s slightly weird leftist worldview where NATO is evil and Russia and Hamas are “friends”). Indeed a lot more legitimate than attacking Cameron about what he may have done at Uni (which in any case come from one unnamed source).

    The only criticism that can be thrown at the Tories is that they are being a touch hyperbolic. However frankly this is no worse (in fact a lot less worse) than the ridiculous claims that Corbyn and McDonnells are “peacemakers” …. when both in Northern Ireland and Israel they’ve been little more than useful idiots for their favoured set of terrorists!

    This is a great line of attack that the Tories have and its bound to be effective… in large party because Corbyn insists on continuing to reinforcing it himself with his silly posturing around on singing the national anthem and desire to undermine our nuclear defense…. Its rather telling that his lefty supporters are screaming “unfair attacks” rather than demanding the guy ups his game with the electorate.

    1. But claiming another party leader is national security risk is, surely, unhelpful hyperbole at the very least? Of course I expect the Tories to highlight the fact that Corbyn is against Trident and to make party political points about it. Fair enough. But to state blithely that an opposition leader’s views stray into the illegal is frankly astonishing. (And no I don’t care what did or did not occur with the pig. I worry more about the money given to Boris Johnson.)

      1. I agree its hyperbolic but all sides are guilty of hyperbolic rhetoric (you just need to see all the “evil Tory” memes that come from Labour supporters on twitter).

        As per my original comment McDonnell and Corbyn have been equally hyperbolic in defending their “unorthodoxy” positions on foreign policy/domestic terrorism claiming to be “peacemakers”. Indeed I would be interested in the freedom of information request to find out exactly what role either of these men had in brokering peace in Northern Ireland or engaging with all sides in Israel/Palestine conflict.

  2. I think you have overlooked the possibility that the Prime Minister’s Office could treat the requests as vexatious, which would absolve them of any obligation to comply. It is not even clear from the wording of section 14(1) that they would need to state when that is their justification for noncompliance, although that would seem to be a good idea to avoid the issue being escalated.

  3. Apparently you are only fit to be Prime Minister if you are willing to destroy civilisation. At least publically (we know most Prime Minsters say afterwards they’d have been unlikely to do so).

    I’m never entirely sure what other effects result from world leaders having to pretend to be raving madmen in this way. It certainly doesn’t help trust and makes peace harder (deliberately not suggesting it makes war more or less likely, as that is arguable, but certainly makes peace harder).

    1. Of course the alternate way of looking at this is you are only fit to be prime minister if you want to ensure peace by playing a diplomatic game of bluff and thereby ensure that nobody attacks us and we say in an state of relative peace and stability.

      It seems very naive to assume that if we unilaterally scrap our nuclear defense that everybody will decided to be nice to us. I might conclude that disarmament would be a good plan if and when I hear about Russia, North Korea etc all disarming…. until that day holding onto a nuclear defense and being prepared to threaten to use it if attacked doesn’t seem like an entirely bad idea for maintaining the peace in a nuclear world.

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