By Martin Williams: More than 110 MPs, journalists and campaigners frustrated by escalating government secrecy have joined forces to call for better enforcement of transparency rules.
They have signed an open letter telling the UK’s new information commissioner, John Edwards, that he must do more to hold ministers and departments accountable.
The letter, coordinated by openDemocracy, says the current approach to enforcing the Freedom of Information (FOI) Act is “clearly not working”. It urges Edwards to defend the public’s right to know, including allocating more resources to investigate complaints about secrecy in Whitehall.
In response, Edwards said he recognised “the concern around timely access to information” and insisted that addressing this was a “priority”
The intervention follows a string of revelations about Whitehall’s abuse of the FOI Act.
Last year, a British judge criticised the Cabinet Office for its “profound lack of transparency” after openDemocracy exposed the existence of an FOI ‘Clearing House’ in government, which was ‘blacklisting’ requests from journalists and others.
A parliamentary inquiry into the Clearing House was launched in July 2021 and is still ongoing.
And recently, dozens of FOI requests about the partygate scandal have been rebuffed by officials who claim the public does not have the right to see incriminating details.
Katharine Viner, who edits The Guardian, Observer editor Paul Webster, senior Tory MP David Davis, and Private Eye editor Ian Hislop are among the signatories. Others include the Green Party’s Caroline Lucas, former shadow chancellor John McDonnell, SNP politician Ronnie Cowan, and comedian Joe Lycett – along with a string of journalists and campaign groups.
It comes as the Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) faces an unprecedented backlog of FOI inquiries – made worse by the pandemic and chronic under-funding.
The authority only resolved 4,000 complaints in 2020-21, the lowest number for more than a decade and the list of unfinished casework grew by 56%. Individuals who file complaints about transparency can often expect to wait months or even years for them to be fully addressed – by which time the information may no longer be relevant. What’s more, the ICO took no action against any government department last year, despite repeated evidence that Whitehall is abusing transparency rules.
Last year, it was revealed that 2020 was the worst on record for freedom of information, with just 41% of requests to the government granted in full.
The open letter says: “The accountability that FOI provides is in real danger of disappearing, which poses a threat to the long-term national interest of this country. It is time for fresh thinking and bold action to deliver FOI transparency in the public interest.”
It urges the ICO to allocate more resources to investigating complaints about FOI. It also calls for clear protocols to be introduced to deal with authorities that have systemic patterns of poor transparency.
Investigations by openDemocracy have revealed how the Cabinet Office’s secretive Clearing House vets sensitive requests for information.
It has interfered with requests about Grenfell Tower, telling the housing department to alter responses about the disaster. And it blocked the release of sensitive files about the contaminated blood scandal, which had been requested by the son of one of thousands of people who died.
“It can take up to 18 months – or years, especially if appeals are involved – to get full replies to FoI requests”
Last year, openDemocracy’s reporting led a high court judge to criticise the government for a “profound lack of transparency” that might “extend to ministers”. These investigations also sparked a parliamentary inquiry by the Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee. At the time, the government pledged to review the way it handles FOI requests. But five months later – in January this year – it admitted that an investigator had not even been appointed.
It was then revealed the government had spent at least half a million pounds on legal fees over the last five years, trying to prevent information from being released under FOI.
Appearing before MPs last year, the new information commissioner admitted he had not read the ruling from openDemocracy’s landmark court case. Edwards went on to spark fury by suggesting that the government could charge fees to members of the public who want to access information. He said people should “entrust” Whitehall to release “the most relevant information”, instead of requesting lots of unnecessary extra information.
The letter to Edwards today says the “current regulatory approach to FOI is clearly not working.”
Michelle Stanistreet, NUJ general secretary, said: “The present delays in the FOI system can kill a time-sensitive story stone dead. It can take up to 18 months – or years, especially if appeals are involved – to get full replies. This isn’t good enough. Journalists report that government departments can be obstructive and hide behind a culture of secrecy.
“FOIs are a useful tool for journalists to hold public bodies to account, but the system is broken and needs swifter action to be taken against those who break the time limits to replies. The act also needs to be broadened out to include private companies running public services.”
In his response to the letter, Edwards added: “We acknowledge the concerns expressed in this letter over government secrecy. FOI plays an important part in civic engagement and holding public services to account, and we share the desire to see the law work effectively. The ICO’s role is to administer the law, and we always want to hear views that help us to understand where our role can be improved. We all benefit from a modern law, and I think there are suggestions in this letter that warrant further consideration. My office will be part of those discussions, though decisions about law reform are for ministers and Parliament to make.”