The Department for Transport’s (DfT) refusal to release a 2016 internal report about the Garden Bridge project is likely to be overturned, a leading freedom of information campaigner has said
The AJ reported last week that a Freedom of Information (FOI) request to see the report – an assessment of the financial position of the Garden Bridge Trust made by the DfT’s internal audit team in July 2016 – was refused and then refused again on appeal earlier this month, sparking fury from MPs and members of the London Assembly.
The report was witheld on the grounds of protecting the interests of the Garden Bridge Trust, which developed the project but which has has been in liquidation since April last year. In its appeal decision, the DfT also added that releasing it might discourage third parties from sharing commercial information with it.
But Maurice Frankel, director of the Campaign for Freedom of Information, said it appeared the DfT’s decision was based not on the FOI Act but on sparing politicians’ blushes.
The report is believed to have warned that the project had a funding gap of up to £75 million and warned ministers not to put more taxpayers’ money at risk by extending the government’s guarantee of the trust’s cancellation liabilities. Nevertheless, just days later, then transport secretary Chris Grayling agreed to extend the guarantee indefinitely, capping it at £9 million, a decision that later led to the loss of over £5 million of public funds.
Frankel said: ‘It’s very difficult to see how disclosure could prejudice the commercial interests of a body which is going into liquidation or discourage other commercial bodies from supplying information to the DfT. These bodies don’t plan on being wound up and their decisions on what information to share with the department are not affected by the prospect of catastrophic failure.
’This doesn’t sound like a decision which the DfT’s FOI officers would have made. It suggests a political decision to avoid embarrassing politicians. But there’s no “sparing of politicians’ blushes” exemption under FOI, and trying this on will only magnify the embarrassment when they are finally forced to disclose it.’
The FOI request was made last November by consultant and Garden Bridge expert Dan Anderson after he identified it as one of the few remaining official documents on the scheme not yet in the public domain.
He has appealed to the Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) against the DfT’s decision.
A spokesperson for the ICO said it had received a complaint but could not comment as the case was ongoing.