Friday, June 05, 2015

DPMC's poor proactive disclosure

Back in 2010 I started trying to get information on how Cabinet Minister's conflicts of interest were handled in accordance with the Cabinet Manual. DPMC were reluctant to release anything, but eventually the Ombudsman recommend partial release, as well as regular proactive disclosure. The first such disclosure took place in December 2013, but this year DPMC were slack about it - so in April I sent them an OIA request to hurry them along, seeking the usual statistical information as well as their advice and communications on proactive disclosure in an effort to find out the reason for the delay. I got the response back today. Firstly, the statistical information:

  • The Cabinet Secretary was informed of a conflict of interest under paragraph 2.69 on 53 occasions between 1 October 2013 and 30 September 2014, and a further 96 between 1 October 2014 and 31 March 2015. Almost all of these were referred to the Prime Minister. The high number is due to the formation of a new government with a large number of new Ministers
  • Cabinet Ministers declared a conflict during meetings on 28 occasions between 1 October 2013 and 30 September 2014, and a further 10 between 1 October 2014 and 31 March 2015.
  • Ministers arranged not to receive papers on 15 occasions between 1 October 2013 and 30 September 2014, and a further 15 between 1 October 2014 and 31 March 2015. The Cabinet Secretary was notified that they had not received papers on 14 and 6 occasions respectively.
  • DPMC's summary of arrangements is now online here.
But the interesting part of the release is the advice. This shows that DPMC started looking at it in November 2014, and arranged for the Ombudsman's Office to review their disclosure. That process was completed by December, and the Ombudsman's opinion of it was scathing. While the proactive release was "consistent" with the actual details, it failed to include all actions taken during the period, omitted key information which would build public confidence in DPMC's handling of conflicts, including the specifics of how transfers of responsibility were handled. Furthermore:
Some entries may be considered to lack sufficient detail as to the nature of the conflict at issue. They are clearly less meaningful than the related entries contained in the confidential register. Some entries appear to have been unnecessarily abbreviated, making them more abtruse and difficult to understand. It is questionable whether all the exclusions or abbreviations are necessary on privacy grounds, particularly where the conflict is portfolio- or constituency-related rather than personal, or where the details of the personal conflict are already publicly known (for example, it is already well known that Me brownlee was the subject of an investigation for possible breaches of aviation rules at Christchurch Airport; see entry 3). [...] There is a risk that by generalising the entries to such an extent, the public interest purpose of the proactive disclosure exercise will not be achieved. If the desired outcome is to promote public trust and confidence in the appropriate and effective management of ministerial conflicts of interest, then disclosures in the register must have sufficient detail to allow the reader to see that the correct principles were applied properly. Otherwise the exercise becomes effectively meaningless.
DPMC's response to this? Yeah, nah. They published exactly the same information they had offered for review in November 2014, without changes.

It is hard to escape the conclusion that DPMC's heart isn't in this, and that they do not see the point in transparency. But their handling of Cabinet as a cosy club and their refusal to disclose meaningful detail means that we cannot have any confidence in their handling of these matters.