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Revealing Johnson’s talks with BP not ‘in public interest’, UK government says

Exclusive: Details of secretive meeting between the PM and the oil giant among crucial climate documents the Cabinet Office refuses to release

Jenna Corderoy
Jenna Corderoy
11 November 2021, 11.51am
The Cabinet Office has refused to disclose details of a meeting between Boris Johnson and BP
Daniel Leal-Olivas/AFP/Alamy

Details of a meeting between Boris Johnson and oil company BP are to be kept secret, the UK government has said, claiming it would “not be in the public interest” to reveal what was discussed.

The news comes as world leaders meet in Glasgow for the COP26 climate conference, where Johnson is calling for “ambitious commitments”.

The prime minister met BP’s CEO, Bernard Looney, in September last year to discuss the oil giant’s “ambitions to reach net-zero emissions by 2050, supporting the government’s green agenda and COP26”.

But when the government was asked by journalist Russell Scott to release copies of the minutes and agenda from the meeting, it refused.

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Scott’s request is one of many climate-related Freedom of Information (FOI) requests rejected by the Cabinet Office – with only a handful granted in full.

Replying to Scott, the Cabinet Office said: “It would not be in the public interest to threaten the candour of all involved, if they were to take the view that the content of the discussions would be disclosed prematurely.”

It also said it was important to “ensure that the commercial interests of external companies are not damaged or undermined”.

If there’s nothing to hide, why do everything to hide it?

Jo Maugham, director of the Good Law Project said: “We don't have an issue with the prime minister sitting down with BP to discuss COP. But if there’s nothing to hide, why do everything to hide it?

“Once again Number 10’s stonewalling raises more questions than answers.”

Last week, openDemocracy revealed that officials from major oil companies including BP would be speaking at COP26 – despite assurances from organisers that they would not be welcome.

openDemocracy also revealed that BP spent years spying on peaceful climate campaigners, even hiring a private intelligence firm to do so.

‘Commercial interests’ prioritised

Campaign group Global Witness asked the Cabinet Office for a list of all COP-related FOI requests it had received since January 2019. The list, disclosed on 1 October, revealed that out of 55 requests, only eight were granted in full.

The requests include questions about who is sponsoring COP26 and the government’s correspondence with fossil fuel companies about the summit.

“It's essential that the UK government's role in hosting COP26 can be scrutinised, especially when we know big polluters have tried so hard to pollute the process of climate negotiations,” Barnaby Pace, a senior campaigner at Global Witness, told openDemocracy.

“Governments have to be accountable if we are to kick polluters out and make the changes needed for the planet,” he added.

Environmental campaigners have said that the Cabinet Office – which is in charge of FOI policy and hosts the controversial Clearing House unit – has “repeatedly resisted and redacted requests for information”.

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Public authorities are meant to respond to FOI requests in 20 working days, but a third of requests about COP26 were answered late by the Cabinet Office – and some haven’t been responded to at all.

One of them was submitted by Chris Garrard, co-director of Culture Unstained, who was monitored by BP. He asked the government to provide copies of emails between its official COP26 ‘climate champion’ and staff from oil companies. But after more than 100 days of waiting, Garrard is yet to receive a response.

“If anything is in the public interest, it’s the ways in which big polluters have exerted influence both at COP26 and over the UK government’s response to the climate crisis,” Garrard told openDemocracy.

“But the Cabinet Office has repeatedly resisted and redacted requests for information, often flouting its obligations under the Freedom of Information Act.

“Once again, the ‘commercial interests’ of those that caused the crisis are being put before climate action and accountability.”

Katherine Gundersen, deputy director of the Campaign for Freedom of Information, said: “It's no surprise that only a handful of these requests have been granted given the Cabinet Office’s record. It knows that by the time it may eventually be forced to answer these requests properly the COP26 summit will be a distant memory.”

Access Denied

openDemocracy revealed details of BP’s snooping in a landmark report, ‘Access Denied’, in October. The oil company admitted to hiring a controversial spy firm, Welund, to provide regular updates about campaigners.

Warwick University also collaborated with BP on a security strategy about a student who was researching BP’s archive, which is housed on Warwick’s campus.

The report also revealed how fewer and fewer FOI requests sent to departments are being granted in full, with 2020 being the worst on record for government secrecy.

The findings show that some government departments have far lower FOI disclosure rates than others, with the Cabinet Office among the worst offenders.

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