Charlotte Owen, Ross Kempsell and the secrecy of HOLAC

My attempt to find out what the House of Lords Appointments Commission had to say (if anything) about the award of peerages to Charlotte Owen and Ross Kempsell by Boris Johnson has just been rejected by the Information Commissioner’s Office.

I will now be appealing this to the First-tier Tribunal, on the grounds that in my opinion it is in the public interest for this material to be revealed, despite the view of the ICO.

Last July I made a freedom of information request to HOLAC for the material it held about the two individuals we now know as Lady Owen of Alderley Edge and Lord Kempsell, after their somewhat unexpected appointment to the House of Lords in Johnson’s resignation honours list.

After HOLAC declined to send me anything, I complained to the ICO. My arguments can be summarised as follows:

  • The appointment of members of a law-making assembly, people with substantial political influence and decision-making powers to make laws governing the rest of the population, requires a great degree of legitimacy, and that in turn demands maximum transparency.
  • This is especially true for these two individuals, given (a) their comparative youthfulness means they are likely to hold politically powerful roles for several decades and indeed in due course may well be amongst the longest-serving legislators in the UK’s history; and (b) the widespread public puzzlement and concern as to what they have achieved or what qualities they possess.
  • Issues of propriety (HOLAC’s responsibility here) are an important aspect of assessing suitability for membership of the House of Lords.
  • Disclosure is necessary for the legitimate interests of the general public to understand fully the processes for appointing people who take decisions on behalf of the nation, and for the public to be able to see for themselves whether the processes are adequate.

HOLAC argued:

  • Their process requires confidentiality to ensure that decisions are taken on the basis of full and honest information and that potentially sensitive vetting information can be candidly assessed.
  • The information it already places in the public domain about its working practices provide the public with reassurance that its processes are sufficiently rigorous.
  • In the case of a resignation honours list, its role is limited to an advisory one, notifying the prime minister of whether it has concerns about the propriety of peerage nominations, and does not extend to assessing the overall merits of nominees.

The ICO has upheld HOLAC’s stance. We will now find out what the First-tier Tribunal makes of the rival arguments. It is likely to take several months before the Tribunal decides the case.

I was interested to see last month that the UK Governance Project, a high-powered independent commission with a distinguished membership, drew attention to the problem of lack of transparency at HOLAC. It recommended that HOLAC should always have to publish a citation setting out the basis on which it has approved an individual for appointment.

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