Many of you will still remember the recent allegations of peerages being given for donations made to the Conservative party. Those that benefitted from this were conviently named party treasurer for a short amount of time in order to legitimise their nomination.
What isn’t immediately obvious however is that all nominations made by a political party have to be vetted by the House of Lords Appointments Commission (their website can be found here). Part of this vetting process involves statements provided by both the party nominating the candidate and the candidate themselves that make certain assertions, some of which include details involving donations made to the party concerned.
I was concerned that this is the sort of thing that could easily happen repeatedly, since the political party gets all the attention whilst those doing the vetting seem to get none. I made the following Freedom of Information request to the House of Lords Appointments Commission:
* A list of checks made against each candidate when verifying their suitability. * What changes, if any, the commission plans to make to the vetting process to try and ensure that these apparent failures are not repeated. * With respect to all conservative ex-party treasurers put forward as potential peers within the past seven years, and irrespective of whether they were finally given peerages: * How many were approved by the commission? * How many were rejected by the commission? * What checks for suitability, if any, did they fail? * How many acknowledged any donations to the conservative party in the requisite statement provided by them to the commission?
This was sent on the evening of 14th November, and I finally got a response today. Technically it was late but for all intents and purposes it was pretty much on time, and they still managed to do far better than many of my previous attempts at contacting any national government organisation when making FoI requests.
That said the actual content of the response was sadly lacking in my opinion, using section 21 (information already publicly available) to refuse to give a list of checks made, despite the page they llink to only having a vague list at best.
With respect to my second question, I got this reply:
I can confirm that the Commission does not hold any information regarding your second question.
This to me is actually quite worrying, since we have serious allegations of wrongdoing and yet the body tasked with policing admissions is doing nothing. The most the general public is getting from them is a gallic shrug with no real action being taken, and in not doing anything manage to give the impression of being complicit in all those questionable situations.
They also chose to use s.37 to deny any answer to my 3rd question. s.37 of the Freedom of Information Act can be found here, and is what’s known as a qualified exemption. This means that the use of this exemption is subject to a public interest test.
The wealth of those allegedly buying the peerages is extreme. £3 million might seem like a huge fortune to most of us, but it seems highly unlikely that it holds the same importance to those wealthy individuals willing to hand it over to a political party.
The conservative party have reduced membership of an important element of our democracy to little more than a cheap toy found in Christmas crackers during one of the many parties attended by the party donors. The public interest in handing over the information is therefore high, and any claim that releasing the information somehow harms trust in how the system is operated is laughable, especially when the we take a closer look at the likely harm done by withholding the information.
Finally they chose the use s.40 to refuse to answer question 3 in my request. This is the oddest one of all, since on one hand they claim they don’t want to release personally identifiable information, whilst also admitting in the same response that they publish the identities in their reports. I was also careful to phrase that question in such a way that did not request any personally identifiable information: if they provided simple answers then there would be no way of linking the information provided to any one person.
As you might expect I have asked for an internal review of my request, and will post the result of that here once I receive it.