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Gove needs to get a grip of his special advisors, and answer accusations of breach of FoI laws

Posted on 20 September 2011 | 10:09am

‘Maximum openness for maximum trust’ was one of the principles I tried to operate when heading up attempts to co-ordinate communications across government.

There were risks attached to that, of course. But I think I can count on the fingers of one hand, for example, the number of times we suffered from a leak of the weekly note I sent to all ministers and all private offices for a substantial part of my time with Tony Blair.

I am also modestly proud of the fact that though plenty of people have sought to give me a kicking from time to time, they have tended not to include the ones who worked most closely with me, and I think the ‘maximum openness for maximum trust’ may have been one of the reasons.

It was especially important for me, as a special advisor with known political views, affiliation and role, to get on with civil servants, and again I think most will say that I did.

It would appear that education secretary Michael Gove and his special advisors are operating a very different approach. Today’s Financial Times story revealing that Gove’s team are using private email accounts to conceal sensitive political information from colleagues and from the public is but the latest evidence of this.

To be fair to the FT, they put the story on the front page, and there was a little bit of follow up on the broadcast media this morning. I cannot help thinking that if this had been exposed on Labour’s watch, the headlines would have screamed a little more loudly across the airwaves and later editions.

Gove is very popular with many in the media because he is a former journalist, jovial and amiable, and because he spends a lot of his time running down State schools, which fits with the worldview of the mainly privately educated and, even more so, privately educating media elite.

But you do hear very persistent grumbles in Whitehall about the way his special advisors operate. The suggestion that this extends to a potential breach of the law on Freedom of Information is one that Mr Gove himself surely now has to answer.

  • McDuff

    I’m sure Gus O’Donnell will impartially review these allegations………

  • I completely agree with the Maximum Openess philosophy.  However, Politicians now live with the Freedom of Information Act. And as TB once said he regretted its implementation due to the difficulty in conducting politics “with a reasonable level of confidentiality”.

    I wonder if the actions of Mr Gove’s team is as a results of the FoI Act.

  • Olli Issakainen

    “Maximum openness for maximum trust.”
    International relations are about competition for power. Sometimes it is necessary to lie in national interest.
    Own security is the most important thing. Especially when it comes to wars, policymakers often lie.
    We, for example, now know that the US exaggerated the threat from Iraq, and that the war was about “regime change”. 
    But was the war necessary?
    George Monbiot writes in the Guardian that a half a million children had died in Iraq as a result of sanctions.
    So were the sanctions “working”?
    Should the politicians tell the truth about the world now? Do they even know what is going to happen?
    My hero John Gray has said that there will be “resource wars”. About oil etc.
    When did our leaders last time tell about his?
    Mr Gray also predicts widespread economic collapse.
    Will Hutton wrote in the Observer that our capitalist system is near meltdown.
    William Keegan stated that the British economy is facing a “catastrophe”.
    Polly Toynbee told that world stands on the verge of economic meltdown.
    But with the exception of Vince Cable, our leaders are still locked in pre-crash neoliberal thinking.
    Either Mr Osborne knows next to nothing of economics (as Simon Heffer has suggested), or he is deliberately misleading the British public when he speaks about Britain as “safe haven”.
    2.5m new jobs by the private sector were promised during this parliament. Latest figures show that for the 111 000 jobs lost in the public sector, 41 000 were created in the private sector.
    According to FT extra £12bn will be added to the structural deficit.
    We should also be told the truth about the coming one-world government (world will be divided into 10 zones) after the economic collapse. We should be told the truth about the coming one-world currency after the dollar collapses and foreign investors leave the US.
    The world´s “superclass” wants this “New World Order”.
    It includes CEOs of big corporations and banks.
    And in Britain, we need to know the influence of secretive free-market thinktanks on policy.
    Greece must default and quit the euro. EU, IMF and ECB with their neoliberal austerity are destroying Greece. Its debt will be 200% of GDP in 2013.
    But Greece´s problems will cause international turmoil and major crisis.
    Italy, downgraded by S&P, will cause a huge economic crisis in the whole Europe.
    We are witnessing a farce that will end in a tragedy. Both in Britain and Europe. And the US will follow.
    The classical definition of tragedy consists of arrogance, folly and destruction.
    The Tory-led government is sitting on sidelines and rearranging deckchairs while Titanic sinks.
    Either they are inept, or are part of the powerful superclass which is creating an economic collapse for their own purposes.

  • MicheleB

    I’m sure there’s a lot more that will remain secret in Gove’s dept.

    I don’t know much detail about how state schools are funded but if it’s per pupil then some of the newly-opened under-subscribed ‘free’ schools are surely going to be dipping in to other funds to pay their staff.  Which funds? 

    Given that teaching staff don’t need to be trained as professionals I’m sure there are also going to be confidentiality and pupil morale ‘issues’.

  • The idea that Government could be like the proverbial ice flow – 7/8 below sea level of secret activity – is not surprising and YES, even though the tabloids dubbed you spin doctor, you did a grand job keeping the press, public and (form your diaries) public informed.

    It must have, at times, been like the job of a School Head – there’s the school staff (cabinet colleagues); the governors (press/media et al); the education authority (House of Commons & Lords)…but, worst of all, the parents (cross party affairs)! Or something along those lines…

    Maintaining a united front must rely on openness and we just aren’t getting it from this bunch! The thing is, if you have something to hide, you’ll always find a way…but when you are found out, you have a long way to fall! 

    Hopefully, Mr Gove and his furtive  gang will find this out soon…

  • MicheleB

    If I was a gambler I’d place a bet on the last sentence.

  • Anonymous

    Hear hear!  What a weasel! (Mr G, not you) Yes I think we should be told.  And Mr Gove must answer these questions and if necessary stand down. 

  • Richard

    Please can anybody tell me what confidential email etc can pass between individuals in government and not be subject to subsequent scrutiny under FOI?
    Are all drafts of documents available to any enquirer?

  • Janiete

    This sort of rule breaking seems to reflect a wider pattern in the coalition for ignoring longstanding parliamentary conventions. I understand the opposition has been trying to get information, so far unsuccessfully,  from Gove’s department about the costs associated with his free schools project. Surely a reasonable request given the imperative to cut public sector costs.

    In other areas the Government appears to be pressing ahead before legislation has completed its course through parliament. NHS letters in my area now share a logo with the private company ‘Care UK’. As I write this R4 is still discussing ‘the planned reforms to the NHS’. It looks to me like its happening all over the country already.

    Despite the fact that the House of Lords has not yet scrutinised the proposed legislation, from this week, letters are being sent to people from the DWP to say that, under Welfare Reform Bill plans, ‘contributory-Employment and Support Allowance’ will be time-limited to one year from April 2012. This is expected to affect 7,000 cancer patients and many more with other terminal conditions.

    If the Government doesn’t wait for legislation to be approved before implementing changes, what is the point of Parliament?

  • Gilliebc

    They covered this story that’s in today’s FT on the SkyNews press preview last night and I think it would be fair to say that neither the SkyNews anchor person nor the two guest pre-viewers were very impressed with what the ghastly Gove and others are up to.

    Sometimes I wonder AC if you have ever been asked to be a guest newspaper pre-viewer on that news channel?  As a journalist and ex-communications person for TB you would make an excellent press previewer, imho!

  • I doubt it James.

    Have I mentioned the Top Trumps thread in the UK Education group on  (an open group so anyone on linkedin can see it)?

    More insight there. 

    Great article – top research journalism by the FT – and thanks for drawing attention to it Alastair.

  • Gilliebc

    Geat post olli. Telling it as it really is takes a certain amount of courage because the majority of people are still getting all of their info. from the MSM!  though it’s heartening to see more and more people catching on every day.

    John Gray? Would that be the US author born in 1951?  If so he looks like a very interesting (new to me) source of info. and educated opinion.

    I understood the NWO/OWG were planning on 4 zones.  But I guess that would be the ultimate aim and would take time.  Asuming they are “allowed” to get that far!  Can I ask you Olli, have you heard of the “White Dragon Society” according to Benjamin Fulford, whom I personally have strong doubts about, the WDS (a coalition of Chinese & Japanese people) are planning to take-out the top ruling elite and various others that are involved in this dastardly scheme.  There is a lot of info. on the net regarding the evil ruling elite and their plans for the NWO/OWG so naturally not all of it is accurate.  This sort of thing tends to attract a few nutters which pleases the elite no-end because it detracts and diverts people away from their plans.  I also wonder why we are allowed at the moment at least, to access this info. on the www. I don’t believe we would be seeing any of it if it didn’t suite their purpose in some way.

    I believe 100% that what is happening now with this country’s economy and the economies of the wider world is not due to unfortunate circumstances or inept governments.  It’s happening according to the very long term plans of the ruling elite.  Begining with Mayer Amschel Rothschild 1744-1812 who infamously said “Give me control of a nation’s money and I care not who makes her laws” along the way men such as Cecil Rhodes and other high profile Brits bought into the idea. The late US eugenist expert Margaret Sanger, of whom it’s reputed that Hilary Clinton is a great admirer of was also a willing accomplice.

    I know it’s hard even impossible for some people to fully take in how this world is really run and what plans they have in store for us.  But I would simply say examine the evidence, prepare to be shocked and make your own mind up.  No one is forcing any one else to believe or accept what’s happening.  We are all individuals.  This is the book that began my awakening! it’s titled “The Brotherhood of Darkness” by Dr. Stanley Montieth.  Dr. Montieth also talks about this book and another book of his “None Dare call it Genocide” on youtube in nice 10 minute bursts.  It’s not for everyone I understand and accept that, but in their shocking way these books and others do help make sense of the seemingly non-sensical and inept way that this country and the wider world is now run.  Talk about living in a parallel universe!  To the sceptics, which I was once one of, I would just like to remind you of the old adage of truth being stranger than fiction.  I believe that’s something we’ve all experienced at several points during our lives.

  • Dave Simons

    There is such a thing as conspiracy and the word ‘meltdown’ does mean something serious, However conspiracy theorists and political Jeremiahs are nothing new, and I’m perhaps not surprised that people like Will Hutton, William Keegan and Polly Toynbee are putting themselves in the latter category. I think it might not be a bad idea to keep focussed on the reality outside our own imaginations. ‘The coming one-world government’ is about as likely in our lifetimes as the Second Coming, though it was talked about as long ago as Bertrand Russell. I’m just waiting for someone to resurrect and misinterpret Nostradamus.

  • Chris lancashire

    Maximum openess for maximum trust was the aim was it Mr Campbell? Shame then that many of us feel you failed comprehensively on both then.
    As for the number and position of special advisers, I cannot agree more with your sentiments on them, more’s the pity then that your administration did more than any to employ more and more of them and elevate them above a very good Civil Service. Shamefully, this adminstration appears to be continuing the policy.

  • Jim Brant

    “George Monbiot writes in the Guardian that a half a million children had died in Iraq as a result of sanctions.”
    No. They died because Saddam creamed off the money that the UN sanctions regime allowed Iraq to have to feed its people.

  • Mido

    There’s even more of an irony here in that in an attempt to keep email ‘secret’ Gove and his Spads will have been sending email no doubt in plain text for anyone to intercept or if it was sent secure by blackberry it’s sat on a server owned by a the Canadians as well as Google’s servers. The other reason for using the Official systems is they are secure!

  • Nick

    They’re all theoretically subject to scrutiny, provided that they’re “held” by the public authority concerned. “held” for these purposes doesn’t cover situations where the authority happens to have a copy of the information that is actually being used by somebody else – e.g., private emails. So if SpAds (or Ministers) are sending party political emails from their departmental accounts, the copies stored on the department’s servers should fall outsider the FoI regime. Which would make this a non-story, fraknly.

    As to the other question, about whether the drafts are available to requesters, that really depends on whether they’re exempt for any reason. Information dealing with the security services, foreign relations, or cabinet discussions, will probably be withheld. Early drafts of policy documents should be available, once the policy has been announced, but not while it’s still be thrashed out.