2020 was worst year on record for UK government secrecy
By Jenna Corderoy and Lucan Amin: Last year was the worst on record for government secrecy, new research by openDemocracy has revealed.
Just 41% of Freedom of Information (FOI) requests sent to government departments and agencies were granted in full in 2020, down from 43% the previous year.
This is the lowest figure since records began in 2005.
The findings are published in openDemocracy’s new report, ‘Access Denied’, which exposes the extent of the government’s attack on FOI
It follows a major investigation by openDemocracy last year, which revealed how a secretive Cabinet Office unit called the ‘Clearing House’ vetted sensitive requests for information.
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A judge subsequently criticised the government for a “profound lack of transparency” that might “extend to ministers”.
A parliamentary inquiry into the Clearing House – launched by the Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee in the wake of openDemocracy’s revelations – opens this week.
The Access Denied report also finds that some government departments have far lower FOI disclosure rates than others, with the Cabinet Office among the worst offenders, along with the Foreign Office and the Department for International Trade.
Transparency campaigners say “urgent action is required” and that there needs to be a “sea change in attitudes towards FOI within Whitehall to avoid it spiralling it into an accountability black hole”.
“What decisions are they trying to prevent the public from knowing about”
Earlier this year, opinion polling conducted for openDemocracy found that UK voters are seriously concerned by the government’s secrecy and its failure to answer FOI requests.
It comes as the backlog of complaints sent to the information watchdog – the Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) – has increased by 56%.
In 2020-21, it managed to complete 4,000 FOI complaints, which is the lowest number in more than a decade.
Blocking MPs’ requests
openDemocracy’s Access Denied report reveals a “shocking” web of surveillance spun by oil giant BP that used private spies to keep tabs on environmental campaigners. BP also shared information with public institutions, including the British Museum and the University of Warwick.
The report also shows how requests submitted by Conservative and Scottish National Party MPs have been resisted by the Cabinet Office. In one case, the government dragged out the appeals process by several months and is still yet to release the information, despite a judge ordering it to do so.
Transparency laws specify that the government must respond to information requests within 20 working days. But last year, 13% of replies were issued late – the highest level since 2009.
In one case cited in the report, Conservative MP David Davis asked for details of official research conducted for the government.
After initially refusing his request, Davis complained to the ICO, claiming that “the government has effectively used large amounts of taxpayers’ money to obtain information which may give it a political advantage”.
“This doubling down on secrecy gives the overwhelming impression there is something malign to hide”
During the ICO’s investigation, the Cabinet Office switched its legal defence and claimed it would cost too much money to disclose information to Davis.
Davis told openDemocracy: “The Cabinet Office have obfuscated and delayed, and then deployed excuses shifting from it being too expensive to collate, to then saying the data is still being used to inform policy.
“When Whitehall is this desperate to avoid publishing the information, the question has to be asked: ‘what decisions are they trying to prevent the public from knowing about?’”
In another case, in June 2019, the SNP’s Tommy Sheppard used the FOI Act to request copies of polling on ‘Scottish attitudes to the union’, which was conducted by Ipsos MORI for the Cabinet Office.
After a two-year legal battle, a tribunal ordered the Cabinet Office to disclose the information. Although the Cabinet Office applied to fight this decision, a judge ruled that the government department had no grounds to appeal.
Despite this, the Cabinet Office applied for a second time in August, only to be again told that it had no grounds for appeal.
Sheppard has still not received the information.
“My FOI battle with the Cabinet Office has gone on too long. The effort and consistency they are putting in is telling. This isn’t some rogue individual or team. This can only be a coherent, orchestrated policy of obstruction.
“For the department to take such an approach it must have been sanctioned by ministers at the highest level,” Sheppard told openDemocracy.
‘Doubling down on secrecy’
Transparency campaigners have raised concerns about the findings of openDemocracy’s new report and issued warnings about the state of Britain’s FOI regime.
Steve Goodrich, head of research and investigations at Transparency International UK, said: “Citizens have a right to know how government spends public money, yet this is increasingly and actively frustrated by ministers and their advisers.
“Instead of embracing openness as a necessary check and balance on power, this doubling down on secrecy gives the overwhelming impression there is something malign to hide. We need a sea change in attitudes towards FOI within Whitehall to avoid it spiralling it into an accountability black hole.”
Katherine Gundersen, deputy director of the Campaign for Freedom of Information, said: “The FOI Act is at risk of being neutered by a combination of obstruction and an overburdened and overly tolerant regulator.
“A healthy FOI regime requires a properly resourced Information Commissioner but also one who is prepared to make full use of their powers to tackle poor compliance. We simply don’t understand the ICO’s reluctance to use enforcement notices to deal with this problem in even the most serious cases, where the law is plainly being flouted.”
A Cabinet Office spokesperson said: “This report is complete nonsense. It shows a total misunderstanding of the FOI Act and government processes, while misleading readers with outdated statistics.
“As the public would expect, during 2020 government departments were dealing with an unprecedented pandemic. The focus was on saving lives and the NHS, and as the independent Information Commissioner’s Office recognised this left fewer resources available to deal with FOI requests.”
Jenna Corderoy is a reporter for openDemocracy’s investigations team. Lucas Amin is a research consultant working on anti-corruption and good governance issues.