Freedom of Information: Investigation

Boris Johnson refuses to publish his official pandemic diaries

Exclusive: Government blocks release of 18 ministers’ calendars – including those of the PM and Matt Hancock

Jenna Corderoy profile2.jpg Peter Geoghegan
Jenna Corderoy Martin Williams Peter Geoghegan
6 July 2022, 4.01pm
Boris Johnson is among 18 ministers who have refused to release their official diaries of the pandemic
PA Images / Alamy Stock Photo

Boris Johnson has refused to release the official diary of his meetings during the pandemic, sparking accusations that the prime minister “does not believe rules apply to him”.

Over the past year, openDemocracy has been battling behind the scenes to see logs of ministers’ calls and visits – which could give a crucial insight into who was lobbying Johnson’s government while its members shaped the UK response to COVID.

New chancellor Nadhim Zahawi told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme on Wednesday that “evidence and transparency is what you are going to see from this team, from this prime minister”.

Yet 18 ministers have refused to tell us how they spent their time as Britain’s biggest health crisis in a century unfolded.

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Matt Hancock is among those whose diaries have been kept secret, even though the former health secretary has signed a book deal to publish a lengthy document of his time in government.

The Cabinet Office told openDemocracy that “the burden on departmental resources” was “too great” to release diaries of who ministers were meeting as the pandemic raged in 2020.

Number 10 even claimed, as it refused to hand over Johnson’s schedule, that the diaries would be “of limited value”.

The handful of ministerial diaries that we did manage to obtain raise serious questions about transparency and access at the heart of the British government. They show:

  • Former foreign secretary Dominic Raab cut his workload by around two-thirds in the days before last year’s Afghanistan crisis. Raab, now deputy prime minister, had previously claimed that reports of him “lounging on the beach” in August 2021 were “nonsense”;

  • One in five meetings held by Rishi Sunak was for “political” reasons, raising the prospect that the former chancellor could have been meeting Conservative donors and lobbyists for up to four hours a day as the economic crisis worsened;

  • Former education secretary Gavin Williamson’s diary contained meetings and phone calls with businesses that had not been included in previously published government disclosures, which his department claimed was an error.

As the government tried to stonewall our requests for the diaries, they were flagged to the Cabinet Office’s Clearing House – a secretive unit that was subjected to a parliamentary investigation after openDemocracy revealed it had been vetting FOIs from journalists.

Questions have been raised already about the level of access that lobbyists and businesses had to Boris Johnson’s government during the pandemic. Last year, it emerged that former health minister Lord Bethell had a series of meetings in April 2020 with companies that later received millions of pounds in government COVID contracts. These meetings were not recorded in official transparency releases.

Labour MP Andy Slaughter said that Boris Johnson’s refusal to publish his ministerial diary was “further evidence that he thinks uniquely that rules do not apply to him”. 

He told openDemocracy: “Ministers’ diaries are not their private thoughts; they are a record of events and actions taken on behalf of government and it is in the public interest that they should not be kept secret.”

Liberal Democrat Wendy Chamberlain MP said: “The British public have a right to transparency from ministers. The way in which this Conservative government continues to run roughshod over that vital principle is shameful.

“Sadly, it’s just what we have come to expect from Boris Johnson’s administration.”

Former Lib Dem assistant whip and deputy Commons leader Tom Brake, who now runs the campaign group Unlock Democracy, said that “as a minister I would have had no objections to providing my diary and revealing whom I was meeting”.

“Health ministers in particular have a duty to be transparent. The public will want to be reassured that during the COVID crisis ministers’ focus was exclusive in dealing with this public health emergency. Simply releasing their diaries will confirm this was the case,” Brake added.

Raab’s seaside diplomacy

The government’s failure to focus on a looming crisis is revealed in Dominic Raab’s ministerial diaries.

The records, obtained by openDemocracy, show that the then foreign secretary enjoyed a light week ahead of the evacuation of Afghanistan – which is widely considered to be one of the worst foreign policy disasters in modern history.

Raab has previously dismissed claims he had been “lounging on a beach” while he was on a family holiday in Crete last year.

"I based my family on the beach… precisely so I could get back to the apartment, engage in the [emergency] Cobra meetings, engage with my emergency response team at the Foreign Office, engage in the international engagement I needed to," he said.

But his official diaries list an average of just seven entries per day, between 7 and 15 August. It compares to an average of nearly 22 diary entries during the weekdays of the previous two months.

Raab was reportedly ordered home from his holiday early because of the growing crisis, but insisted on staying two more days after getting permission from Boris Johnson.

He later came under pressure to resign over his handling of the disaster and was heavily criticised by fellow MPs.

After a four-month battle to withhold Raab’s diaries, the government handed them over – but claimed that parts of them could be inaccurate.

“Not all meetings in the official diary will have happened,” the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office said in response to our request. “They may have been cancelled but not removed from the diary. Likewise, meetings and calls may have happened which were not entered into the official diary.”

A UK government spokesperson added: “The former foreign secretary was in constant contact with the department and returned to the UK on 15 August.”

Sunak’s ‘political’ meetings

After repeatedly refusing to provide openDemocracy with copies of Rishi Sunak’s diaries, a single month of entries was eventually released to the campaign group Spotlight On Corruption following a separate request.

But one in five meetings listed in the September 2021 diaries were redacted and labelled “political”. No further information was given.

Other entries were redacted due to commercial interests, and international relations concerns.

Under transparency rules, ministers must publicly declare ‘official’ meetings with external organisations that relate to government business. But the distinction between ‘official’, ‘political’ and ‘personal’ meetings is often blurred – something that ministers have previously used to keep their activities secret. 

Sunak’s diaries show he spent up to four hours a day dealing with “political” issues, raising questions about whether the chancellor was meeting Conservative donors or lobbyists. 

Spotlight On Corruption’s George Havenhand said: “If senior ministers are sidestepping disclosure requirements to meet donors, lobbyists or other vested interests in secrecy then there is clearly a vacuum of transparency at the heart of government. 

“Reforms to increase transparency around lobbying and ministerial engagements are long overdue – including oversight and accountability for publishing details of meetings – so that the public has a much better understanding of which individuals and groups are accessing ministers.”

Missing meetings

The government is already supposed to publish a record of ministerial meetings. Phone calls with external organisations have also been included in this data over the years.

These records have previously revealed controversial rendezvous with Tory donors and lobbying firms. 

But these releases appear to be incomplete. openDemocracy has found that numerous meetings and phone calls held by Gavin Williamson, the former education secretary, were not declared in official transparency releases before and during the first pandemic lockdown. The Department for Education said yesterday this was down to human error, and said the transparency releases would be updated.

Steve Goodrich, head of research and investigations at Transparency International, said it “raises suspicions” when ministerial conversations “are hidden from the public eye”.

“While discussing official business with outside interests should be a matter of public record, the rules requiring this are too full of loopholes to be enforceable in practice, leading to mistakes, potential mischief or deliberate obfuscation. Without fundamental reform of the ministerial code and how it's enforced, we'll be left in the dark about what happens in Whitehall,” Goodrich added.

There is a long precedent of publishing ministerial diaries. In 2017, the government failed a legal bid to block the release of former health secretary Andrew Lansley’s diaries

Lansley has previously said the government was “frightened by the precedent of having to publish the whole diary of a secretary of state for two years”.

More recently, government spent £40,000 trying to hide how rarely northern powerhouse minister James Wharton visited the north of England. 

Responding to questions from openDemocracy about the failure to release ministerial diaries, a Cabinet Office spokesperson said: “This government remains fully committed to its transparency agenda and releases more proactive publications than ever before, including details of ministerial meetings with third parties which are already published on a quarterly basis.

“With all requests, we consider the costs to the taxpayer and the burden on departmental resources, which would have been too great in this case.”

openDemocracy has now lodged appeals to the UK’s information watchdog, in a bid to get full access to the government’s ministerial diaries.

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.

Hear from:

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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