THE Cabinet Office has refused to release Michael Gove’s secretive State of the Union report in its unredacted form.

At the UK Covid Inquiry’s Edinburgh hearings, held in January this year, it was revealed that Gove had produced a document for Tory ministers on the “risk” of Scottish independence to the Union.

However, only three pages of the report were published on the inquiry’s website.

Despite rumours that the document had been leaked online in the weeks following, the full report has not been made public, and the Sunday National’s Freedom of Information (FOI) request to see the document has been refused.

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SNP Scotland spokesperson Tommy Sheppard MP, who has been embroiled in his own battle for the release of Union polling by the Cabinet Office, hit out at the department’s refusal to disclose information evidently gathered to “support a political campaign”.

Gove produced the report during his time as chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster – the second-most senior member of the Cabinet under then-prime minister Boris Johnson – and presented it to his fellow ministers on July 12, 2020.

Following the revelations, the Sunday National lodged an FOI request with the Cabinet Office in a bid to secure a copy of the report or any relevant information surrounding it.

Our request was subsequently denied, with the Cabinet Office’s team stating that the redacted portions of the report are exempt under section 35(1)(b) of the FOI Act which “protects communications between ministers”.

The National:

The response adds that “disclosure would weaken ministers’ ability to discuss controversial and sensitive topics free from premature public scrutiny”.

The exemption states that ministers should be able to “discuss policy freely and frankly, exchange views on available options and understand their possible implications”.

The Cabinet Office added that the “candour” of those involved could be impacted by the report being published “prematurely”, adding that if discussions were “routinely” made public, it would impact ministers’ ability to be “frank and candid with one another”.

“As a result, the quality of debate underlying collective decision-making would decline, leading to worse informed and poorer decision-making,” the response continues. “Taking into account all the circumstances of this case, we have concluded that the balance of the public interest favours withholding this information.”

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However, as Sheppard pointed out, the report was published almost four years ago – not recently.

“How can there be an argument to protect discussions that took place four years ago?” he said.

“How is that in any shape or form relevant to what’s happening today?

“How could that possibly compromise what they’re doing now, or the operation of government?

“It’s just blatant nonsense.”

The National: Tommy Sheppard

Sheppard (above) has been battling with the Cabinet Office since 2019 for the department to release polling on attitudes to the Union and says one of the big issues is that the UK Government should have to demonstrate that there is evidence it is “reviewing policy”.

He added that this is similar to what the Cabinet Office should have to demonstrate in regards to Gove’s report.

“In this instance, they’re not reviewing policy at all,” he said.

“In fact, the Government has gone out of its way to say that there are no proposals to enhance devolution, allow a referendum or anything else that’s going to alter the status quo.

“There’s just going to be no change, that’s the Government’s policy position.

“The truth is what they’re doing is spending taxpayers’ money to research and support a political campaign on behalf of the Conservative Party or the Union’s cause against those who take the alternative point of view.

“That’s what’s happening here, and that’s corrupt.”

The Sunday National also asked how many copies of the report were sent to individuals in the Cabinet Office and elsewhere and how many members of staff were involved in supporting Gove to research and write the report.

We were told that the Cabinet Office did not hold the information to answer either question.

“It is not possible to determine how many copies of the document may have been distributed in total,” they added.

Our request for any internal and external correspondence regarding the report was refused on cost grounds.

The National: Michael Gove

The Cabinet Office said: “In this case, the volume of information returned by relevant searches means that establishing whether the information is held and locating and retrieving the information would exceed the cost limit.”

“The Cabinet Office has got form on this, they are the worst department for manipulating the Freedom of Information exemptions to try and keep things hidden,” Sheppard blasted.

“Intellectually, democratically, this is not a good way to conduct public debate and engage people about very important discussions about the future of their country.”

What did we learn from the redacted State of the Union report?

FROM the staggering three pages of evidence and three short paragraphs published on the UK Covid Inquiry website, the risk of independence to the Union appears to have been front and centre – at least from the phrasing of the conclusion.

Mostly all of the information under the heading “the scale of the challenge” has been redacted, but one paragraph is made available. It describes how perceptions of the UK Government and devolved administrations’ response to the UK Covid pandemic “reflect wider challenges in microcosm”.

It reads: “In Scotland, only 27% of people think that the UK Government is putting in place the right measures to protect the UK from Covid-19, but 70% of respondents believe the Scottish Government is putting in place the right measures to protect Scotland.”

The report adds that the figures are slightly higher elsewhere – Wales sits at 29% to 65%, while for Northern Ireland, the figures are 36% to 61%. Across all nations, the public felt greater trust in their devolved leaders rather than Tory ministers.

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Elsewhere, the report revealed Gove urging the Cabinet to find a way to “change perceptions” of their handling of the pandemic.

“There is a real opportunity to outline how being part of the Union has significantly reduced the hardship faced by individuals and businesses across the UK, and will continue to do so,” the report read, noting that satisfaction with the UK Government response was “low” across the devolved nations.

In the three-sentence conclusion, Gove writes: “Absent Covid-19, I am firmly of the view that the risk to the Union would be the greatest challenge this Government needed to confront – and unfortunately it is in no way lessened by the parallel demands of the epidemic and our economic recovery.”

He adds that “protecting and strengthening the Union must be a cornerstone of all that we do”, urging ministers to take several actions set out in an annex which has not been made publicly available.