Cabinet Office will publish its missing spend data - but cannot say when
Response to Government Computing FoI request declines immediate publication but insists that "preparations for publication are advancing"
The Cabinet Office has said it will publish figures for the department's spending over £25,000 from August 2014 onwards "in the near future", though an exact date has not been provided.
The data has unaccountably not been published since July last year, prompting Government Computing to seek release of the data or the reasons for non-publication through a recently-submitted Freedom of Information (FoI) request.
In its response, the Cabinet Office FoI team said, "Information you have requested is being withheld as it is exempt under section 22(1) of the Freedom of Information Act. Section 22(1) protects information intended for future publication. Section 22 is a qualified exemption and I have considered whether the balance of the public interest favours maintaining the exemption in section 22(1) or disclosing the information."
The team added, "The Cabinet Office recognises there is a general public interest in disclosure and the fact that openness in government may increase public trust in and engagement with the government. I also recognise there is a public interest in evaluating the activities of organisations entrusted with protecting national security.
"The Cabinet Office recognises there is a general public interest in disclosure and the fact that openness in government may increase public trust in and engagement with the government. However, more complete information about Cabinet Office spend over £25,000 is due to be published in the near future."
However, in response to Government Computing's request for immediate release of the data, the Cabinet Office's FoI team declined to provide the spend information immediately, saying, "Preparations for publication are advancing and diverting resources from them in order to respond to an individual request for information might distract staff from, and therefore delay, publication to a wider audience. That would not be in the public interest."
"Taking into account all the circumstances of the case, I have determined that the balance of the public interest favours withholding this information."
As the department leading the government's open data policy commitments, the Cabinet Office has committed itself to publish datasets through the data.gov.uk service that details how public money is being spent on a monthly basis as part of wider commitments around transparency.
However, it has fallen behind a number of departments including the Ministry of Justice (MoJ), Ministry of Defence (MoD) and HM Revenues and Customs (HMRC), which have all provided equivalent data up to at least December 2014. Indeed, the Cabinet Office's data is close to being a year out of date.
In April, in a carefully drafted response, Cabinet Office officials said that they had been unable to comment on why the "previous government" has failed to update the department's spending statistics or details of senior officials' meetings due to the pre-election period ahead of polling. Following the General Election in May, no further details have been provided concerning the delays.
Ahead of forming a majority government last month, the Conservative Party used its election manifesto document to outline planned ongoing transparency commitments aiming to build on work undertaken during its time in coalition.
"Over the last five years, we have been open about government spending, provided access to taxpayer-funded research, pursued open data and helped establish the Open Government Partnership. We will continue to be the most transparent government in the world," said the manifesto.
Oversight of the publication of government data relies on the Freedom of Information Act through the Information Commissioners Office (ICO).
The data regulator said that every public authority under the Freedom of Information Act is required to have a publication scheme setting out what data it will pro-actively publish.
"Our model publication scheme requires authorities to release 'financial statements, budget and variance reports' at least annually," said a spokesperson for the ICO.
It added that where practical, it also expected half yearly or quarterly financial reports to be provided by public bodies, including revenue budgets and capital expenditure details.
An ICO spokesperson said that should the publication of Cabinet Office spend data not be updated in the 12 months since July 2014's figures were released, it may consider issuing a notice or enforcement action against the department.
"We wouldn't rule it out, but our general approach is to work with an authority to help them improve their performance and take enforcement action if they fail to improve," said the spokesperson.
"Previous FOI enforcement action has focused more on improving the timeliness of public authorities responses to FOI requests. This is because the [FoI] Act includes a clear requirement to 'respond to FOI requests within twenty working days' unless the request is particularly complex."
The ICO added that it had previously taken action against the Cabinet Office concerning a failure to respond to FoI requests in a timely manner.
As part of the ICO undertaking, data commissioner Christopher Graham decided at the time to opt against issuing an enforcement notice or practice recommendation on the grounds that the Cabinet Office took steps to ensure it provided up-to-date and readily accessible information, as well as responding to several other monitoring commitments.