BORIS Johnson’s government has been dealt a major blow after it has been ordered to disclose information about polling on public attitudes to independence and the Union following a two-year battle led by SNP MP Tommy Sheppard.

The party’s constitutional affairs spokesman first made a Freedom of Information (FOI) request in June 2019, seeking details it had carried out on polling since January 2018 on public perception on the Union, including how much public money had been spent on it.

The Cabinet Office, which is run by Michael Gove (below), refused, hiding behind an exemption clause which related to providing a safe space for the development of government policy.

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Sheppard appealed to the Office of the Information Commissioner (ICO), arguing that since the UK Government had no stated intention to review or alter policy in respect of the Union, the clause should not apply.

The ICO sided with the Government and in February last year, Sheppard, the SNP MP for Edinburgh East, took the case to tribunal.

In a major victory for the SNP and the wider Yes movement, the First-tier Tribunal (General Regulatory Chamber) Information Rights ruled that the information requested “relates to the implementation of existing policy rather than to policy development” and that the Cabinet Office must disclose the information within 28 days.

Sheppard described the decision as a major blow for Johnson’s government’s “Union Unit” and a victory for transparency across wider policy areas.

“This is a very welcome decision with significant consequences. The Cabinet Office has been hiding this data claiming that they were developing policy,” said the SNP frontbencher.

“I have been clear from the start that this wasn’t the case – maintaining the Union is clearly an ongoing policy of the UK Government – and the Tribunal has come to the same conclusion.

“We have the right to know how much of taxpayers’ money has been spent on it, and what the polling says.

“If it’s paid for by the public, the results must be available to the public, otherwise the UK Government is using taxpayers’ money to further their own political ends.”

He added: “I have long suspected that the UK Government is determined to keep this polling secret because the results make uncomfortable reading for them and show widespread and engrained support for political control coming back to Scotland through independence.

“Now we shall see. Not only do we need to see the data I originally asked for, I have today made a further FOI request for data that has been gathered in the past two years.

“There are wider consequences to this decision too. The presumption should be in favour of transparency and only in exceptional circumstances should information not be disclosed when requested. It should never have had to go to a tribunal to get this decision, and the whole process should not have taken two years.”

Sheppard (below) went on: “This is a major shot across the bows for Michael Gove. He will have to think twice and be very careful wasting taxpayers’ money on political campaigns against the SNP and the Yes movement.

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“This sets a precedent that anything that is funded by the taxpayer about public attitudes to the Union has to be available to the public.

“This is clearly a setback to Boris Johnson’s Union Unit and the SNP has struck a blow for transparency across the UK Government which many others will benefit from.

“This ruling will apply to government polling on any social policy matter, where they are not proposing a change for instance on the House of Lords or on drugs policy.”

It is the latest setback for Gove, who was slammed by a judge last week for a “profound lack of transparency” and was ordered to release internal files shedding light on a secretive unit that handles Freedom of Information requests.

Last Tuesday, it was announced that the Cabinet Office had lost a legal bid to block the release of documents relating to its “Freedom of Information clearing house”, located in Whitehall.

An investigation by the OpenDemocracy website suggested that the secretive unit was being used to potentially blacklist journalists and campaigners seeking information under transparency laws – which would be unlawful.

The Cabinet Office has also refused to release documents elaborating how the unit is run and what it does.