Jersey has lost the right to keep its correspondence with the UK parliament about resettling Syrian refugees secret following a landmark legal battle.
Controversial ex-Guernsey politician Tony Webber had been pushing the UK Home Office for the release of correspondence relating to the Crown Dependendcies’ discussions over how to handle the Syrian refugee crisis – including whether refugees should be welcomed to the islands.
But government officials from Jersey, Guernsey and the Isle of Man warned that doing so would set a “dangerous precedent” by giving members of the public the right to an eye over all of their “sensitive” discussions with the UK.
Pictured: The Crown Dependencies feared that disclosing their discussions with the UK Parliament could set a "dangerous" precedent.
Mr Webber first made his request under the UK Freedom of Information Law in 2016 in order to gain correspondence relating to whether Jersey, Guernsey and the Isle of Man should take part in a refugee relocation scheme.
The UK Information Rights Tribunal ruled in favour of disclosure, leading Government of Jersey officials – and other Crown Dependency representatives – to push the UK’s Immigration Minister to appeal in August 2018.
Today it was announced that the Home Office and Crown Dependencies would not be allowed to appeal – something hailed by Mr Webber as a “victory for open and transparent government”.
“Hopefully those in senior positions in the Crown Dependencies governments will now refrain from using bogus constitutional arguments to prevent transparency, whether it be in the political or the financial sector… The issue should mean that a lot of questions should be asked of those in authority, especially about their judgement and potential conflicts of interest, let alone the costs involved to the taxpayers,” he added.
The judgment in Mr Webber’s favour detailed how Mr Tim Pitt-Payne represented the Attorneys-General of Jersey, Guernsey and the Isle of Man – all of which in a letter prior to the hearing had “emphasised the chilling effect that disclosure would have on future communications between the UK Government and the governments of the Crown Dependencies”.
Pictured: The Crown Dependencies had argued in a letter, which was rejected as evidence, that sensitive discussions like Brexit preparations could be jeopardised if a precedent was set through the ruling.
The written ruling also explained how the Home Office had aimed to appeal on the grounds that the tribunal that made the original order for them to disclose the information “erred in law” by focusing “solely or largely on whether the content of the withheld material was “controversial” rather than on the wider prejudice of disclosing such communications” and “reaching irrational conclusions when balancing the public interest”.
But each of their grounds was dismissed, with the ruling also stating that the Crown Dependencies’ joint letter could not be admitted as evidence because none of the jurisdictions had applied to become parties to the legal proceedings.
“As regards the wider issue of fairness, I do not consider that the resolution of this issue is in any way affected by the special constitutional position of the Crown Dependencies… The decision made has no implications for other FOIA requests which are made for information to be found in communications between departments of state of the UK Government and the relevant authorities in the Crown Dependencies. Each case will turn on its own facts and which qualified or absolute exemptions are in issue…
“For all those reasons, I refuse the Home Office's application for permission to appeal. For the same and the additional reasons set out above, I also dismiss the substance of the requests by the Attorneys General,” Judge of the Upper Tribunal Nicholas Wikeley concluded.
Maurice Frankel of the Campaign for Freedom of Information in the UK explained that despite wishing to keep the correspondence confidential, it was, in fact, partially the Jersey Government's own fault that disclosure was ordered.
Pictured: A statement made by Jersey's then Chief Minister, Senator Ian Gorst, may have inadvertently led to the decision to release the correspondence.
The then Chief Minister, Senator Ian Gorst, who is now External Relations Minister, had made a statement to the States Assembly in 2015 explaining the government's views on resettling Syrian refugees. Had he not done so, the outcome may have been different.
"The information was already published and found on the States of Jersey's website and on Hansard in Jersey as part of the Chief Minister's statement on the issue. When documents containing the same views as sent to the Home Office were requested under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), the Tribunal said there was no good reason to withhold them given that the arguments had already been made public," Mr Frankel told Express.
The Crown Dependencies had feared that the judgment would be precedent-setting and disrupt the secrecy of their communications with the UK on other issues, but Mr Frankel assured that this wouldn't be the case because the Judge had concluded each disclosure should be decided on its merits.
"It is unlikely to affect confidential discussions between the parties unless there's a very strong overriding public interest, despite the wishes of the other parties to keep them confidential."
He said that one of the key bits of learning from the judgment was that, even if under their own FOI Laws, the Crown Dependencies would not have released such information, that doesn't mean that applying the UK's own law would lead to the same result.
Pictured: The ruling on the topic of Syrian refugees comes just as the issue has appeared on the local agenda again, thanks to a push by Constable Simon Crowcroft and former child refugee Lord Dubs, who will be visiting later this month.
Express has approached the Government of Jersey for comment and is awaiting a response.
The judgment regarding the release of correspondence on the topic of accommodating refugees comes just as the issue has made its way back onto the political agenda.
Last year, St. Helier Constable Simon Crowcroft made a push for refugee children to be offered homes locally. Later this month, former child refugee Lord Dubs will be in the island in a bid to change hearts and minds of both islanders and politicians on the matter.
Read the full judgment by clicking here.
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