The Cabinet faced a criminal investigation into blocked Spycatcher documents | Freedom of information

A criminal investigation team at the Freedom of Information watchdog looked into a complaint against the Cabinet Office after it blocked the release of files on intelligence agent Peter Wright and Spycatcher case.

Tim Tate, a documentary maker and author, complained to the Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) last June that the Cabinet Office had repeatedly given inaccurate information to justify withholding the files after he had requested their release.

Wright, a former MI5 officer, claimed in his 1987 autobiography, Spycatcher, that the security service had breached embassies and that a small group of agents had conspired against then-prime minister Harold Wilson. MI5 conducted its own investigation and said it found no evidence of a conspiracy against Wilson.

Peter Wright at Hobart Airport in October 1987
Peter Wright at Hobart Airport in October 1987. The government lost its battle to stop the publication of his memoirs in Australia. Photo: Fairfax Media Archives/Fairfax Media/Getty Images

Wright died aged 78 in 1995. The records requested by Tate detail the controversy surrounding the revelations and the government’s attempt to cancel the publication of his book.

Cabinet Office officials initially rejected Tate’s request, saying the records were being prepared for transfer to the National Archives and any disclosure to him might disrupt that work. The Tate and the ICO were later told they had refused the request on the grounds that the records were exempt from disclosure because they were provided by or related to the intelligence services. Tate has since been told that the records he is seeking will “be up for review and possible transcription in 2029”.

The ICO told Tate last month that it had asked its criminal investigations team to review its complaint. Correspondence from a case officer states: “The commissioner does not in any way consider that the inconsistent and contradictory statements made by Cabinet on this matter were satisfactory or not a cause for concern.”

However, the review concluded that while there was a “lack of clarity and changes in explanation” by Cabinet Office officials, the legal justification for withholding the records was sound.

Tate’s complaints about the handling of the Cabinet Spycatcher files is the most recent review of its handling of requests. A report by the Commons public administration and constitutional affairs committee in April last year found inadequate handling of freedom of information cases across government. He also criticized the Cabinet Office for the lack of transparency in the operation of the “clearing house”, which coordinates responses to certain requests.

Tate asked for it first Spycatcher files in April 2019. He said the Cabinet Office wasted public funds by delaying the release of files and giving misleading information.

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Tate said: “I’ve been trying to get this information for almost four years. The records are almost 40 years old and by law they should be public.” He said he had complained to the ICO because of inaccurate and misleading information provided at his request.

The government launched legal proceedings to stop it Spycatcher which was published in Australia but lost its action in 1987. The controversy surrounding Wright’s revelations and Margaret Thatcher’s government’s efforts to prevent publication are detailed in 32 files containing government documents from 1986 and 1987.

The Cabinet Office denied that misleading information was provided by officials during the process. It said it complies with all freedom of information legislation when handling requests.

An ICO spokesman said any allegations made of possible criminal offenses are regularly passed on to its criminal investigations team for review. The spokesman said: “In this case we quickly came to the conclusion that there was insufficient evidence of any such offence.”

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