THE Cabinet Office has refused to reveal how much its long-running freedom of information battle over access to “secret” polls on attitudes to the Union and independence have cost the taxpayer.

Ministers have continually blocked the documents being put into the public domain since SNP MP Tommy Sheppard first requested them back in June 2019.

A breakthrough appeared to happen in May this year when, after failing to get the Government’s initial refusal overturned through the internal appeal’s process, the matter ended up with an external tribunal.

The tribunal gave the department – then led by Michael Gove but now by Stephen Barclay – 28 days to publish the files, but it once again refused and lodged an appeal against the judgement. The Cabinet Office is making a legal challenge regarding that decision.

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Amid the ongoing dispute over accessing the files, Sheppard lodged a new freedom of information bid on September 8 to find out how much the Cabinet Office had spent of internal resources and external legal advice refusing his initial request and appealing the tribunal’s judgement.

But responding to Sheppard’s new FoI, an official in the department told him the costs he had asked for were held by the Cabinet Office but that they would not be given to him because it would likely “prejudice the effective conduct of public affairs”.

“We are writing to advise you that the information you requested is held by the Cabinet Office,” the civil servant told Sheppard in an email dated December 1.

“However, information is being withheld because it is exempt under section 36(2)(c) of the Freedom of Information Act because its disclosure would be likely to prejudice the effective conduct of public affairs.

“Section 36 is a qualified exemption and I have considered whether the balance of the public interest favours release of this material.

“I recognise that there is a public interest in transparency in how the Cabinet Office makes decisions related to litigation and in how money is spent in regards to these matters.

“However, it is also clearly in the public interest that government departments are able to manage and handle litigation matters without undue hindrance which may be caused by premature disclosure of the information you have requested.

“Regular disclosure of information of this nature could both undermine the Cabinet Office’s position in these cases and potentially benefit the parties we are in litigation with.

“Additionally, disclosure could distract officials involved in the litigation with any follow up questions and interest from the disclosure. This distraction would potentially be to the detriment of the Cabinet Office’s litigation cases and expenses. This would clearly not be in the public interest.”

The letter added: “The Cabinet office acknowledges that the nature of ‘live’ litigation work makes regular disclosure of costs more sensitive than for historical costs on concluded litigation.

“Taking into account all the circumstances of the case, I have determined that the balance of the public interest favours withholding this information under section 36(2)(c) of the Act.”

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Speaking to The National last night, Sheppard argued the reason being given by the Cabinet Office for its refusal suggested they realised the public would be outraged over the amount of money spent blocking the release of the information

“This statement is tantamount to the Government saying we are not going to tell you because if the public knew how much we were spending they would be outraged,” he said. “They are not giving us the information because they believe there would be an adverse reaction from the public.” Sheppard said he had asked for an internal review and would if necessary appeal to the information commissioner.

In October, Sheppard slammed Boris Johnson’s Cabinet Office as “a rogue department” which he said is “antipathetic” to public scrutiny as he submitted evidence to a Commons inquiry into how the Cabinet Office handles Freedom of Information requests.

He said then: “I believe there is a systematic policy of frustrating Freedom of Information procedures by the Cabinet Office. “