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Evan Owen triumphs over Government on information ruling

The Government will have to disclose information on whether Gordon Brown sought legal opinion on whether the Financial Services and Markets Bill is compatible with human rights legislation.

This comes after the Information Tribunal dismissed an appeal made by HM Treasury against a ICO Decision Notice issued 22 May 2007 which required the Government to confirm or deny that it held Law Officers’ advice following a Freedom of Information request by IFA Defence Union founder and chairman Evan Owen.

Owen made the FOI request on 6 April 2005 and asked to see any documentation and communications the Treasury – Brown in particular – had with regard to the FSMB’s compatibility with human rights.

The Information Tribunal published its decision this week and dismissed the Government’s view that disclosure of those occasions when legal advice has been sought would result in revealing those matters which had a particularly high political priority or undue legal sensitivity.

It said: “The Tribunal feels this argument goes too far. Each case will need to be considered on its facts.”

It also dismissed the Government’s argument that it might be exposed to criticism if it were known that it had not consulted the Law Officers on a particular matter.

It says: “The Tribunal finds this contention, with great respect, unconvincing. As the commissioner has pointed out, the shielding of Ministers of the civil servants who work under them from criticism is not a valid public interest consideration in considering whether an exemption should be maintained.”

The Government will have four weeks from the date of the decision – 15 May 2008 – to decide whether to appeal to the High Court.

Owen says: “A victory for common sense against all odds, the Information Commissioner agreed with me that we have a right to know whether Gordon Brown, who is not a legal expert, had obtained any legal opinion supporting his declaration that the Financial Services and markets Bill was compatible with Article 6 of the Human Rights Act 1998.

“The Treasury made an appeal to the Information Tribunal who have now dismissed it, more than three years after the FOI request was made this is one small step for IFAs, a leap forward for our campaign.

“If Her Majesty’s Treasury has no external legal opinion supporting Mr Brown’s declaration, and I doubt very much that it does, we must press for a review of the FSMA 2000, if there is indeed an opinion which gets Mr Brown off the hook I intend to obtain a copy.”

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