Freedom of Information: Feature

From duck houses to nuclear weapons: what we know because of Freedom of Information law

Over the past 20 years, the ‘right to know’ legislation has helped expose many abuses of power, but now it’s under threat

Adam Bychawski
11 February 2021, 12.00am
Freedom of Information revealed that Prince Charles lobbied prime ministers and senior MPs for years
Dan Marsh, CC BY-SA 2.0. Some rights reserved

What are ministers claiming expenses for? How much do oil companies pay to sponsor public art galleries? Did police stop-and-search operations have an effect on knife crime? What preparations have Bristol council made for a zombie attack?

We know the answer to those questions and many others thanks to the Freedom of Information Act (2000), which gives people ‘the right to know’. That means that anyone can ask a public authority – from ministerial departments to parish councils – to disclose the information they hold.

Since the act passed, politicians have repeatedly threatened to limit its powers. Recently, we revealed that an ‘Orwellian’ Cabinet Office unit has been coordinating Freedom of Information (FOI) responses across government departments, and screening journalists’ requests in ways that experts say could be breaking the law.

The unit has blocked the release of files about the contaminated blood scandal that claimed the lives of thousands across Britain and information about high-rise buildings that have potentially lethal aluminium cladding.

Get our free Daily Email

Get one whole story, direct to your inbox every weekday.

It’s not just journalists and rights campaigners who should be worried – the public should be too. Many of the biggest abuses of power have come to light only because of Freedom of Information requests.

Here are just a few examples of what Freedom of Information requests have revealed over the years.

How MPs spend public money

Ducks on a frozen pond
Sir Peter Viggers, MP for Gosport, claimed £1,645 for the cost of his duck house
Chris Downer, CC BY-SA 2.0. Some rights reserved

From kitchen sinks to duck houses, non-existent mortgages to moats, the list of bizarre and, in some cases, fraudulent expenses claimed by MPs outraged the nation in 2009.

Freedom of Information requests submitted as early as 2005 eventually led to the disclosures. Politicians fought hard to prevent the expenses being revealed, but public interest prevailed. Four MPs and two peers were jailed as a result of the revelations and a raft of reforms launched.

However, questions still remain over what is appropriate for MPs to expense for. In 2019, openDemocracy revealed that a Conservative MP who blocked upskirting legislation and opposed anti-domestic-violence laws claimed £100,000 for parliamentary research by an anti-political correctness campaigner.

Prince Charles’s political lobbying

A 2004 letter from Prince Charles to a secretary of state
Prince Charles's letters to cabinet ministers were given ‘priority they did not deserve’
PA Images

It took a decade and several court cases to force the publication of letters written by Prince Charles to the then prime minister, Tony Blair, and several senior members of his government.

The letters, which became known as the black spider memos due to the Prince of Wales' distinctive handwriting, revealed the full extent of his influence in British politics.

Charles was heavily criticised for his interventions at the time. Paul Flynn, a former senior Labour MP, said the letters demonstrated the Prince had used his position to gain access to ministers.

“They show he is putting forward a whole variety of views – including many bad science views and others that should have no more weight than the man down the pub,” he said. “We can see his views were given a seriousness and priority they did not deserve.”

Britain’s role in Israel’s nuclear weapons program

Israel’s purported nuclear arsenal site photographed by an American intelligence satellite
Public domain

FOIs don't only prompt revelations about the present day, they also can be used to shine a light on the actions of previous governments.

While the West has for decades been attempting to rein in Iran's nuclear ambitions, another Middle Eastern state is believed to have quietly built a covert nuclear bomb. Israel has long had a policy of neither confirming nor denying the existence of its nuclear programme. Despite this, it is thought to have established a clandestine arsenal on par with India and Pakistan.

How did Israel achieve this with a minimum of international outcry? Freedom of Information disclosures from the 1960s revealed that Britain was among many countries that secretly made hundreds of shipments of nuclear materials to Israel.

The documents showed that the nuclear industry played a key role in securing the transfer of the materials, despite warnings by British intelligence that it might be used to make a bomb.

Boris Johnson’s secret NHS reorganisation

Boris Johnson visiting Watford General Hospital following his funding announcement
Boris Johnson visiting Watford General Hospital following his funding announcement
Peter Summers/PA Wire/PA Images

A pandemic might seem like an unusual time to plan a "radical shake-up" of the NHS, but a freedom of information request by openDemocracy revealed that is exactly what the government has been preparing.

The disclosure showed that Munira Mirza, the controversial head of Boris Johnson's policy unit, has been apportioned to oversee the plan. Mirza, who previously worked for Johnson during his time as mayor of London, has no background or policy experience in health.

The government initially declined to confirm reforms, it took a freedom of information request to confirm they are happening.

In February, a leaked document revealed plans to give the government substantially more control over the NHS, prompting concerns from health works about the timing of the changes.

Who’s behind a hardline Brexit pressure group

Jacob Rees-Mogg reclines on the parliamentary benches
Jacob Rees-Mogg was among those revealed to be a member of the ERG
PA Images. All rights reseved

The European Research Group (ERG), a circle of Eurosceptic Conservative MPs, dark money-funded lobbyists and peers, were a constant thorn in the side of Theresa May when she served as prime minister.

The ERG helped torpedo May's Brexit Withdrawal Bill and even attempted to depose the former prime minister.

Despite receiving hundreds of thousands of pounds in public money, the ERG refused to publish a list of its members.

When openDemocracy attempted to uncover its members through a freedom of information request, the information was redacted by the Department for Exiting the European Union.

After an appeal to the Information Commissioner's Office, the Whitehall department was forced to disclose the list of names.

Among the persons included in the released documents was a high-profile member of the Institute of Economic Affairs, a think tank that does not declare its funders.

The public has a right to know who is trying to influence government policy, so Ministers should not prevent this information from being released because it may be politically awkward,” said Transparency International’s research manager, Steve Goodrich.

We've got a newsletter for everyone

Whatever you're interested in, there's a free openDemocracy newsletter for you.

Had enough of ‘alternative facts’? openDemocracy is different Join the conversation: get our weekly email


We encourage anyone to comment, please consult the oD commenting guidelines if you have any questions.
Audio available Bookmark Check Language Close Comments Download Facebook Link Email Newsletter Newsletter Play Print Share Twitter Youtube Search Instagram WhatsApp yourData