Freedom of Information: News

Defence research agency must be subject to Freedom of Information, say campaigners and MPs

Transparency group writes to information watchdog as leading MPs and peers call for government to reverse decision to exclude £800m project from Freedom of Information

Peter Geoghegan
Peter Geoghegan
25 February 2021, 1.17pm
Labour MP John McDonnell accused the government of a 'growing culture of secrecy' over the plans
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Victoria Jones/PA Archive/PA Images

The British government is under increasing pressure to make a new high-profile defence research agency subject to Freedom of Information legislation.

The government has announced plans for a £800m defence research agency, which will operate at arm's length from Whitehall and invest in “high-risk, high-reward” projects.

Ministers have said that the new body, the Advanced Research and Invention Agency (ARIA), will be exempted from Freedom of Information laws that typically apply to all British public bodies.

The proposals to curb transparency come just weeks after editors across Fleet Street signed openDemocracy’s public letter calling for ‘urgent’ government action to improve Freedom of Information.

Parliamentarians and campaigners have reacted with dismay to the government’s intention to exempt the new research body from FOI.

The government’s wish to exempt ARIA from Freedom of Information feels like nothing more than an attempt to save the government’s blushes the next time they opt for a “high risk, no reward” project.

Tom Brake, a former Liberal Democrat MP and head of Unlock Democracy, has written to the Information Commissioner’s Office calling on the regulator to publicly express its views.

“The government’s wish to exempt ARIA from Freedom of Information feels like nothing more than an attempt to save the government’s blushes the next time they opt for a “high risk, no reward” project,” Brake wrote in a letter seen by openDemocracy.

“I look forward to hearing whether the ICO will indeed be expressing concerns about ARIA, or has already expressed concerns, and whether the government has provided any justification for this proposed exemption.”

Labour MP John McDonnell, who sits on the Public Administration Select Committee, told openDemocracy that the move to exempt ARIA from FOI “is another example of the growing culture of secrecy fostered by this government, which is rapidly undermining democratic accountability.

“It opens up the risk of corruption and the cover-up of waste and incompetence. We cannot stand back and allow government-funded agencies being exempted from public scrutiny in this way.”

Lord David Clark, a key architect of FOI legislation that was passed two decades ago, described the government’s decision to cloak the new agency in secrecy as “very strange”.

“It does seem very strange to be exempt from FOI when it isn’t yet an Act of Parliament. The government seems to be acting out of order,” said Clark.

This opens up the risk of corruption and the cover-up of waste and incompetence. We cannot stand back and allow government-funded agencies being exempted from public scrutiny in this way.

ARIA is apparently modelled on the US Defence Advanced Research Projects Agency, which is subject to FOI laws in the United States.

Katherine Gundersen of the Campaign for Freedom of Information said that while the new research agency would be spending hundreds of millions of taxpayers’ money on high-risk projects, “the government apparently wants it to be less accountable to the public than parish councils, which are subject to FOI.

“The FOI Act already exempts information which would harm both commercial and research interests. Allowing ARIA to ignore FOI would reflect a deep-seated government aversion to FOI rather than any need to protect legitimate interests,” Gundersen added.

“There is a pattern here. The government has proposed a new body to investigate serious risks to patient safety which would be subject to a prohibition on disclosure. A new environmental regulator will be prohibited from releasing information apparently overriding the public’s right to environmental information. The government seems intent on setting aside the public’s right to know one body at a time.”

Concerns about FOI in Britain have been growing. A recent report released by openDemocracy showed that FOI response rates are at their lowest level since the Freedom of Information Act came into force 15 years ago.

Last year, openDemocracy revealed details of a secretive unit inside Michael Gove’s Cabinet Office that vets FOI requests from journalists, campaigners and others. This ‘Clearing House’ was described as “Orwellian” by the head of the National Union of Journalists.

openDemocracy is currently working with the law firm Leigh Day on a legal bid to force the Cabinet Office to reveal full details of how the Clearing House operates, and more than 45,000 people have signed a petition to Michael Gove calling for urgent action.

A government source said ARIA would publish its accounts and report on its activities annually. “The new body is being set up so it can take fast, agile decisions without bureaucracy,” they told the Times.

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