Wendygate and the Staunch Guardians of the Public Weal – Part 3: No information held

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by David Ferguson

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It is the end of May 2010. It’s been a long twenty days. The longest twenty days of my life. Three hundred and eighty-five days long, to be precise.

Away back on 8th May 2009, I wrote to the Electoral Commission with a new request. I wanted to ask them about the information they had been given by the Alexander campaign team to explain why the illegal Paul Green donation was reported as having come from Combined Property Services.

They had already refused to tell me what the explanation was – “it’s just not in the public interest, don’t y’see?”

So instead I had asked them whether the Commission had taken the view that the explanation was plausible and innocent.  You see, if they claimed the explanation was plausible and innocent, it would be a bit difficult to explain why it had to be concealed from the public, and if they claimed that it wasn’t plausible and innocent, then it would be even more difficult for them to explain why they had been unable to find any evidence to justify a prosecution…

I think they worked that one out for themselves. Because the answer, to be fair, came back brisk and prompt on 8th June 2009:
“The Commission does not hold information directly relating to your request…”

Eh? I beg your pardon? The Commission conducted an investigation with the sole purpose of establishing why the Alexander team had reported the illegal Green donation as coming from a completely different source, and they asked for an explanation, and they got an explanation, and they found in favour of the Alexander team, and they don’t have any information on whether they thought the explanation was plausible and innocent?

That’s right, I’m told under review on 14th August 2009, again with impressive briskness and promptness:
 “… the Commission holds no information recorded in any form that directly or indirectly identifies the Commission’s view on this issue.”

All right. I try again. On 30th August 2009. This time slowly and patiently, as with a child:
“On receipt by the Electoral Commission of the explanation provided by the Alexander Team for the misreporting of the illegal donation, did any discussions take place within the Electoral Commission as to whether the information provided constituted a plausible and innocent explanation for the misreporting?”

Ah. Yes. Indeed.

This time the response is less brisk and prompt. There is a long story of lost emails, best of intentions, and inexplicable silences. Finally, on 26th January 2010, one hundred and forty-four days into the new twenty-day response period and two hundred and fifty-eight days after I asked the original question, I am told:
“The Commission does hold some information relevant to your questions… Some discussions did take place.”

I see. So the Commission doesn’t hold any information on the matter. Only it does.

Naturally enough, in spite of the Commission’s almost obsessive addiction to openness and transparency, it isn’t going to give me any information about the discussions that took place. ‘This would not be in the public interest…’

I confess that at this point there is a little agitated me hopping around the room.

I write back to the Commission requesting – perhaps demanding would be a fairer way to put it – that they explain why they told me on 8th June 2009 that they didn’t have any information on this matter, and then told me on the 26th January 2010 that they did.

Which brings us neatly back to 28th May 2010, because I finally have my answer. It was all my own fault:
“Your request was narrowly phrased so that it only related to recorded information about whether or not the Commission formed a specific view about explanations or statements made by individuals in the course of our investigation. The Commission considered your request and following a detailed review of the Wendy Alexander case file (in both the original response and the Review) we did not identify any recorded information directly or indirectly relevant to your specific request as phrased in FOI 43/09.
 
The plausibility, reliability and/or truth of statements made by witnesses during the course of interviews or conversations may have been considered by individual investigating officers.  However, the Commission, meaning the Commissioners who have decision making authority, did not give specific consideration to this issue that may be found in recorded information.

And at the end of the day it’s only that last sentence that really matters, because this is what follows:
“The Commission’s consideration of the issues was more broadly focused on whether or not the law had been breached, rather than whether specific answers given to questions were ‘plausible’ and ‘innocent’…”

In other words, the people with the decision-making authority were too busy considering ‘whether the law had been breached’ to take any view on the reliability of the only piece of evidence they had to tell them whether the law had been breached – the statements made by the suspects in the investigation.

I understand now. The breadthly broadness of the Commission’s broadly-focused deliberations on whether the law had been broken was such that it transported the ruminating grandees far beyond the scope of such plodding trivia as whether the only piece of evidence they had to tell them whether the law had been broken was true, or remotely convincing.

For second after long second I sit at my desk, taking protracted deep breaths, overwhelmed by the sheer thoroughness of the Electoral Commission’s investigation.

Y-fronts or boxers? How many alcopops did you drink at the weekend? Can you touch your nose with the tip of your tongue? Who can flick an elastic band the farthest…

Tomorrow part 4: I’ve won but I’ve lost