The government was accused on Thursday of playing dirty politics after it refused to disclose the fate of almost 6,000 responses to last year's consultation on entitlement cards.
The missing responses were submitted via the Internet or by telephone back in January this year, when civil liberties groups Privacy International and Stand attempted to raise the amount of public engagement in the consultation process.
Most of these submissions, it is believed, opposed the introduction of entitlement cards -- which some people believe will effectively be identity cards.
Since the consultation closed, though, government ministers have publicly said that only 2,000 responses were received, leading critics to fear that negative responses are just being bundled together as a single "petition", rather than treated as individual views.
In an attempt to clear up the issue, Privacy International lodged a request under the Code of Practice on Access to Government Information. It emerged on Thursday that this request has just been rejected by the Home Office -- which says it cannot release the information now because it plans to deliver it in a parliamentary answer later this month.
Simon Davies, director of Privacy International, called the decision a disgrace. "The government's refusal to provide this information makes a mockery of its commitment to Open Government, and it makes a mockery of this consultation," Davies said in a statement released on Thursday.
A Home Office official told ZDNet UK last week that this parliamentary answer was due "in a couple of weeks". It is understood that this will be in response to a question placed by Conservative MP Anne McIntosh recently, which asked how many responses has been received via the Stand Web site, and what the pro/anti split was.
Informed sources have told ZDNet UK that the government does not believe that responses sent via Stand and Privacy International carry the same weight as other submissions.
Stand created an area on its Web site where Internet users could learn about entitlement cards, read why Stand opposes them, and email their views to the government to be included in the consultation. Privacy International set up two phone lines -- one for calls in favour, and one against. It then submitted all the messages left on these numbers to the government in electronic form.
According to the Home Office, disclosing information to Privacy International ahead of the publication of this parliamentary answer would be a breach of parliamentary procedure.
But Davies has said that McIntosh's question covers much less ground than Privacy International's own inquiry. It had also asked the Home Office whether it had received and processed 798 telephone responses to the consultation, as well as demanding an explanation for any decision that may have been taken to treat certain submissions as part of a petition, rather than individual responses.
"To reject our request for information in these circumstances is as justifiable as refusing data on the national birth rate because an MP had lodged a question about empty beds in a maternity ward," said Davies, adding that "The Home Office has arbitrarily and improperly rejected this legitimate request."
"The government knows that 80 percent of the responses had opposed an ID card, yet it continues to use deceptive and duplicitous tactics to perpetuate the myth that the consultation was a victory for the proposal," Davies warned.
If these negative responses have been bundled together, then it will be a serious blow to the government's claims that it understands and has embraced the Internet.
When future consultations are held, people may not feel safe submitting their opinions via the Web if they feel the government will bundle them together into an ad hoc petition rather than giving them the same importance as submissions received by post.
"Throughout this entire process the conduct of the Home Office has been disgraceful. They materially breached the code of conduct on consultations, they lied about the figures, and now they have shamelessly flouted the Open Government code. In terms of bare-faced arrogance I have never seen anything quite like it," Davies concluded.