Government denies FOI request to release Sir Gus O'Donnell letter

Government officials have refused to release a controversial letter sent to David Cameron by the head of the civil service.

O'Donnell and Cameron: FOI request denied
O'Donnell and Cameron: FOI request denied

PRWeek revealed earlier this year that Sir Gus O'Donnell had officially reprimanded the Prime Minister over the behaviour of Government media handlers.

The Cabinet Secretary was so alarmed by one media briefing that he wrote a strongly worded letter to the Prime Minister urging him to restrain his special advisers.

The Cabinet Office has confirmed that O'Donnell wrote to Cameron about ‘the role, status or conduct of government special advisers’ in late 2010 - but officials are steadfastly refusing to provide even a redacted form of the letter.

The refusal comes after months of inaction from the Cabinet Office in the face of repeated Freedom of Information requests from PRWeek.

PRWeek first requested a full copy of O’Donnell’s letter in February this year. An official declined to provide the correspondence in question, claiming that disclosure would contravene the first data protection principle, which provides that personal data must be processed fairly and lawfully.

PRWeek subsequently asked to see a redacted version of the letter with any personal data – such as names and job titles - disguised.

On 29 March, the Cabinet Office commenced an ‘internal review’ to decide whether to release a redacted version of the letter.

After eight months, the review has finally been concluded with the Cabinet Office deciding against releasing O’Donnell’s letter to the Prime Minister in any form.

Explaining the decision, a Cabinet Office official cited ‘the strong public interest in ensuring that officials are fully able to provide advice and exchange views in a safe space and away from public scrutiny’.

The official said: ‘To release this information would make it less likely that officials would be able to do this in future; or, if they did, they would be less likely to provide advice and exchange views both candidly and fearlessly; and would be less likely to record such advice or views both accurately and fully.

‘Accordingly, I have concluded that in the circumstance of the case, the public interest in maintaining the exemption outweighs the public interest in disclosing the information.’

It is understood that the Cabinet Secretary was provoked into taking the unprecedented action in September 2010 by newspaper reports concerning Jenny Watson, a former Audit Commission board member.

O’Donnell is said to have been furious after The Times quoted a source describing Watson as ‘incompetent’ and revealing she had been removed from her role.

The letter from the Cabinet Secretary to the Prime Minister is understood to have read: ‘You will have been aware of briefings to the media regarding Jenny Watson. This behaviour is unacceptable. I trust you will agree with me and take necessary action to make sure that people understand this will not be tolerated.’

It remains unclear who was responsible for briefing The Times in September 2010. O’Donnell has previously confirmed that an investigation took place but refused to say whether any individuals were disciplined.

In a letter to Labour MP Caroline Flint, dated 10 may, he wrote: ‘I agree with you about the seriousness of the allegations made which were fully investigated at the time.’ But his letter continued: ‘It would not be appropriate for me to comment on whether or not any disciplinary action was taken.’

There is no suggestion that either of Communities Secretary Eric Pickles’ special advisers were behind the briefing and Downing Street has said it has no records of any meetings the Prime Minister had held with Pickles’ special advisers to discuss their conduct in September 2010.

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