Northern Powerhouse

£40k spent hiding how rarely Northern Powerhouse minister visited north

Daily news News Whitehall

The Government spent £40,000 of taxpayer cash on a two-year fight to cover up how little its Northern Powerhouse minister visited the north of England.

Its attempt to hide embarrassing details of James Wharton’s infrequent trips out of London came to light after a Freedom of Information (FoI) request by The Guardian.

Mr Wharton had responsibility for the ‘northern powerhouse’ in his role as junior minister for communities and local government.

The Guardian submitted its FoI to the Department for Communities and Local Government (DCLG) in February 2016, asking how often Mr Wharton travelled outside London over a six-month period.

But the Government responded by ignoring the requirement to reply within 20 working days and turned down The Guardian request more than four months later.

A subsequent investigation by the Information Commissioner’s Office ruled that the DCLG responded with “what appears to have been a strategy of wilful procrastination”.

An appeal by the DCLG to the tribunal of information rights against the decision in favour of The Guardian was rejected and it was told to hand over Mr Wharton’s diary.

The process had taken 26 months from start to finish and the Government had spent £40,000 trying to hide the facts.

Mr Wharton is no longer Northern Powerhouse minister, with the role having been filled by two people – Andrew Percy and Jake Berry – since the wrangle began.

DCLG emails relating to the FoI and obtained by The Guardian include advice that “there is a strong likelihood of a decision to withhold the requested information… being overturned”.

The Government has been criticised by legal experts for its “secretive” approach, which they say is common across Whitehall departments.

Manchester data protection consultant Tim Turner told The Guardian that departments are reluctant to reveal who ministers meet and what they do.

“Spending £40,000 to hide it doesn’t seem close to the spirit of open government,” he added.

It was eventually revealed that Mr Wharton hardly ever ventured out of London in his role as representative of the North in government.

Sarah Longlands, director of IPPR North, a think tank working on civic society issues in the North, said Mr Wharton’s approach was “disappointing.”

She added: “Attempts to thwart access to information about the work of the northern powerhouse minister show a blatant disregard for the principles of democratic accountability.”

The DCLG has been renamed as the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government and a spokesman said they respected the outcome of the FoI tribunal.

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