Dark Money Investigations: Feature

9 times public authorities refused to answer questions

openDemocracy is leading more than 100 journalists and MPs in calling for the Freedom of Information Act to be protected. Here’s why

Jenna Corderoy
Jenna Corderoy
7 April 2022, 2.18pm
The government has repeatedly refused to answer questions on partygate
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Composite image by openDemocracy via gov.uk and Alamy (PA Images/Malcolm Park). All rights reserved.

Freedom of Information is a vital legal tool for holding the government to account – but many departments have stopped playing by the rules.

The ICO, the UK information rights watchdog, is in charge of investigating compliance problems and taking enforcement action. And it is failing.

More than 100 journalists, MPs, campaigners and academics have signed openDemocracy’s letter to the ICO’s new commissioner, John Edwards, urging him to take strong and transparent action against departments that repeatedly break the rules.

Information that the public has a right to know is being blocked from release. Here are just some of the recent examples we’ve seen.

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How many Downing Street parties were there?

While people were sticking to lockdown rules, we had officials partying in the heart of Westminster. openDemocracy has been filing FOI requests to try to find out more.

When partygate first hit headlines, we requested information about the dates and durations of parties and social events that took place at Number 10 in December 2020, as well as the number and names of guests present.

‘Neither confirm nor deny’ seems to be the government’s go-to when refusing partygate requests

The Cabinet Office was quick to refuse to answer our request, saying it was “not in the public interest to place information into the public domain prematurely” before Sue Gray’s investigations had concluded.

The department has yet to respond to an appeal we submitted in January.

Who was at Williamson’s illegal bash?

In another request, we asked the Department for Education for more information about a Christmas party hosted by former education secretary Gavin Williamson. As reported by the Mirror​​, up to two dozen staff gathered in the DfE cafe for drinks and canapes, and the former cabinet minister delivered a short speech.

We asked for basic details like the number of guests present and their names. Even a copy of this short speech. The response? The department said it “neither confirms nor denies that it holds information of the description specified in your request” and that “to confirm or deny that information exists in any particular line of enquiry could pre-empt her [Sue Gray’s] full conclusions, or hinder the efficient running of her investigation”.

Partygate photos

‘Neither confirm nor deny’ seems to be the go-to when refusing partygate requests. The Guardian reported on Tuesday that the Cabinet Office had refused to confirm or deny the existence of any photographs of illegal gatherings. It said disclosing such information could prejudice the investigation, and contravene the principle of “fairness” under data protection regulations.

Downing Street WhatsApps

openDemocracy also asked for copies of WhatsApp messages relating to an alleged Christmas party in breach of lockdown rules held in Downing Street, which was reported by The Times. The event was said to have been organised by civil servants via a WhatsApp group with staff asked to bring ‘Secret Santa’ presents.

So how did the Cabinet Office respond? “We are not obliged under section 40(2) of the Act to provide information that is the personal information of another person if releasing would contravene any of the data protection provisions,” and: “It is also exempt under Section 31(1)(g) of the Act. This exempts information if its disclosure would prejudice the exercise by any public authority of its functions for the purpose of ascertaining whether any person has failed to comply with the law.”

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Why did the police change tack?

The delays and knockbacks to partygate FOI requests extend to the Metropolitan Police. We filed a specific and tightly drafted request relating to the Met’s reported silencing of Sue Gray. The police still haven't responded, breaching the legal 20-working-day deadline by (so far) a further 29 working days.

‘Operational harm’ and ‘no public interest’ in House of Lords transparency

Readers may recall our revelation last year that the Met had been accused of serious failures over its system of flagging what it called “high-risk” FOI requests – requests for information that had come from journalists and MPs.

In November, openDemocracy and The Sunday Times published a ‘cash for peerages’ investigation that revealed how high-value Tory donors were securing seats in the House of Lords with suspicious regularity. Opposition MPs urged Met commissioner Cressida Dick to investigate, but the force refused, saying there was “insufficient information”. openDemocracy requested information about the decision not to investigate. The Met refused, claiming that transparency about its failure to look into the scandal could cause it “operational harm”.

“Such a disclosure would not be in the public interest,” the response said.

Silence over social media abuse

The silence and secrecy extend to police in other parts of the country. Some 12 forces failed to respond to our requests for information about UK police officers who had kept their jobs after committing sickening social media abuses.

This bizarre ‘terrorism’ excuse

And more than a dozen forces emailed openDemocracy identically worded excuses for withholding information over whether they had spent any money on informants relating to Black Lives Matter and environmental groups, claiming a disclosure “would provide those intent on committing criminal or terrorists [sic] acts with valuable information as to where the police are targeting their investigations”.

And the fight for information over the Clearing House continues:

Back in late 2020, we exposed the workings of the Cabinet Office’s Clearing House, an ‘Orwellian’ unit that has been accused of blacklisting journalists and blocking their Freedom of Information (FOI) requests. Investigations by openDemocracy have revealed how it helped suppress sensitive information on issues ranging from Grenfell Tower to the contaminated blood scandal.

And yet the Cabinet Office is continuing to refuse requests about its operation. openDemocracy found out that the Clearing House had sent a document called “FOI Guidance for Departments – COVID-19 Requests.pdf” to other government departments on 12th March 2020. We asked for a copy of this guidance, as well as all FOI guidance documents on requests about COVID in 2020 and 2021.

Until the system is greatly reformed, openDemocracy will continue to fight for the right to information

At first the Cabinet Office – yes, you guessed right – could “neither confirm nor deny whether information relating to this request is held”. After openDemocracy pointed out that we already knew the document existed, the department switched tack and said that the public interest in letting us see it “has to be weighed against a strong public interest that policy-making and its implementation are of the highest quality and informed by a full consideration of all the options. The candour of all involved would be affected by their assessment of whether the content of the guidance would be disclosed prematurely.” It refused the request again and openDemocracy had to make a complaint to the ICO.

Complaining to the ICO

At openDemocracy, we often make complaints to the information watchdog if a public authority keeps blocking our FOI requests. But this can drag out the FOI process even further.

Our research has shown that the ICO is struggling. In 2020-21, the ICO’s casework team resolved only 4,000 complaints – the lowest number in more than a decade. The backlog of unfinished casework grew by 56% to 1,911 complaints.

It can take months for the ICO to even assign a caseworker to a complaint. In a recent email to openDemocracy over a complaint, the ICO said: “We will allocate it to a case officer as soon as we can. Most cases will be allocated in around nine months from the date of receipt.”

This is not a functioning FOI system.

People do care about FOI, as our open letter demonstrates. Until the system is greatly reformed, openDemocracy will continue to fight for the right to information, and that includes highlighting when public authorities choose secrecy and obfuscation over transparency and accountability.

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