Partygate investigator helped shield No.10 from scrutiny over Grenfell
Revealed: Emails show how Sue Gray was consulted over decision to withhold information about fatal fire
The top civil servant investigating parties at Downing Street has again been implicated in withholding information from public scrutiny – this time relating to the Grenfell Tower fire.
Documents uncovered today show Sue Gray was consulted over blocking a journalist's request for emails to and from Number 10 adviser Elizabeth Sanderson.
One Cabinet Office staffer wrote to a colleague: “I’ve discussed with Sue and we’ll probably be looking to withhold these emails, but I’ll confirm on Monday.”
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It comes after a campaigner warned that Gray, who has been appointed to oversee the party probe, is “not a person that believes in open and full disclosure”. In documents obtained by openDemocracy, Gray was seen urging officers not to respond to a Freedom of Information (FOI) request about the infected blood scandal, instead citing the Chilcot Inquiry into the Iraq war as an example of how to “releas[e] the information in a managed way”.
Kimia Zabihyan, who represents the Grenfell Next of Kin group, said it was “hardly surprising” that requests for information had been opposed within the government. Last year, openDemocracy revealed how the Cabinet Office’s controversial Clearing House interfered in responses to Grenfell-related FOI requests sent to the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government (now the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities).
“The illusion that we have an open society that is serving the interests of the citizens was absolutely exposed in Grenfell,” Zabihyan told openDemocracy.
'I’ve discussed with Sue and we’ll probably be looking to withhold these emails.'
The latest revelations concern conversations dating back to 2019, when a reporter asked for reports and emails sent to and from Sanderson two years earlier regarding the fire that killed 72 people.
In response to his FOI request, Brian Williams, who is head of the Cabinet Office inquiries sponsor team, wrote internally: “We’re in the process of identifying and reviewing the information in scope. I’ve discussed with Sue and we’ll probably be looking to withhold these emails, but I’ll confirm on Monday.”
Gray, who is the sponsor for the Grenfell Tower inquiry, was also copied into several internal emails which discuss how to block the request. The former head of the Clearing House, Eirian Walsh Atkins, is also copied into the emails, which have been revealed by a subsequent FOI request made by openDemocracy.
The journalist’s original request was eventually rejected, with the government telling him that seeing the emails without context “would not aid the public understanding of the issues being considered” by the Grenfell inquiry, which has yet to conclude as of 2022.
But Zabihyan said the excuse was “gobbledegook”.
Gray’s approach to FOI has been criticised on other occasions. In 2015, Chris Cook, then the policy editor for BBC Newsnight, wrote: “I know of half-a-dozen occasions where Ms Gray has intervened to tell departments to fight disclosures under the Freedom of Information Act.”
openDemocracy has approached both the Cabinet Office and the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities for comment.
Why should you care about freedom of information?
From coronation budgets to secretive government units, journalists have used the Freedom of Information Act to expose corruption and incompetence in high places. Tony Blair regrets ever giving us this right. Today's UK government is giving fewer and fewer transparency responses, and doing it more slowly. But would better transparency give us better government? And how can we get it?
Join our experts for a free live discussion at 5pm UK time on 15 June.
Claire Miller Data journalism and FOI expert
Martin Rosenbaum Author of ‘Freedom of Information: A Practical Guidebook’; former BBC political journalist
Jenna Corderoy Investigative reporter at openDemocracy and visiting lecturer at City University, London
Chair: Ramzy Alwakeel Head of news at openDemocracy
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