Freedom of Information: Feature

What we discovered via Freedom of Information this year

From secret government units to the failings of the Met Police, here’s what openDemocracy revealed via FOI in 2022

Jenna Corderoy
Jenna Corderoy
29 December 2022, 12.01am

As usual, it’s been a busy year for openDemocracy. The UK has cycled through three (mostly unelected) prime ministers in quick succession, but our commitment to holding those in power to account has been unwavering.

The great Westminster game of musical chairs hasn’t stopped us from using the Freedom of Information Act 2000 to obtain key documents and data that affect everyone in the UK.

The FOI Act is a cornerstone of British transparency law, allowing anyone to access information from government departments, councils, police forces and other public authorities – often information that those in power don’t want to reveal.

For both journalists and citizens, this is a powerful right that we must continue to exercise and defend. In 2022, we’ve done just that, while also exposing the ways in which others try to undermine it – here’s what we found.

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January

openDemocracy kicked off the year by revealing that half of councils in England and Wales had not prosecuted a single rogue landlord in the past three years, despite a rise in the number of complaints from tenants.

We also discovered that local authorities had received more than 314,000 complaints about private landlords and letting agents between 2018 and 2021 – but only 1,000 rogue landlords were prosecuted during that period.

February

In the UK, the behaviour of individual police officers and the failings of police forces in general have continued to receive intense scrutiny this year.

In February, we revealed how hundreds of British police officers have been disciplined or dismissed in recent years for sickening uses of social media – including an alleged “sexualised” conversation with a 13-year-old and sharing photographs of dead people.

The vast majority of officers involved kept their jobs.

Later in the year, we obtained more details on Metropolitan Police officers sharing “racist, sexist and offensive” messages.

March

When Russia invaded Ukraine at the end of February, wealthy oligarchs and their relationship with the UK came under the spotlight. In March, we discovered that Oxford University had accepted more than £3m in donations from one of Russia’s richest men, Vladimir Potanin.

Speaking in Parliament, Labour MP Margaret Hodge named Potanin in a list of oligarchs who are “involved in companies of strategic importance to the Russian economy” and are “cronies of Putin… propping him up and allowing him to create havoc in Europe”.

A few months later, we revealed that top British universities have accepted more than £7m of funding from Russian sources.

April

In April, openDemocracy coordinated an open letter, calling on the UK’s new information commissioner, John Edwards, to do more to hold ministers and departments accountable.

The letter, which was signed by more than 110 MPs, journalists and campaigners, said that the Information Commissioner’s Office’s current approach to enforcing FOI is “clearly not working”. It urged the new commissioner to defend the right to know, and allocate more resources to investigate complaints about secrecy in Whitehall.

That same month, the public administration and constitutional affairs committee published a highly critical report into the controversial Clearing House. The report had been commissioned in the wake of openDemocracy’s revelations about this secretive unit inside the Cabinet Office.

The committee urged Boris Johnson, then the prime minister, to reverse the government’s worrying “slide away from transparency”.

May

As the cost of living crisis was beginning to bite, we revealed how taxpayers have forked out £17m to subsidise bars and restaurants in the House of Commons over just three years. In fact, all 17 bars and eateries on the Commons estate – where MPs can eat a three-course meal for just over a tenner – made an overall financial loss in the three years up to 2020/21.

The House of Lords is at it too. A week later, we revealed that £8m of taxpayers’ money was spent subsidising the Lords’ own bars and restaurants in the past three years.

June

In collaboration with The Independent, we revealed that substandard landlords have been handed £132m of public cash since 2018 to house some of Britain’s most vulnerable people.

Victims of domestic violence, rough sleepers and people with mental health issues were being housed in often “horrific” conditions, while the providers of that accommodation were raking in millions – in some cases, even after they were criticised by the regulator of social housing.

Related story

Taking the award for Campaign of the Year at the British Journalism Awards, 15 December 2022. Jo Allan of Newsworks, which sponsored the award; Jenna Corderoy; Ramzy Alwakeel; Jeremy Vine, host of the ceremony
Our commitment to seeking transparency in public life put us on a shortlist with major national news organisations

July

July saw Boris Johnson resign as PM but before that, openDemocracy had been battling behind the scenes to force the disclosure of his official diary of meetings during the pandemic. We sent FOI requests to see ministerial diaries kept during the pandemic – including those of former health secretary Matt Hancock – but the vast majority were rejected.

We are currently appealing those rejections. Release of those diaries could give a crucial insight into who was lobbying Johnson’s government while its members shaped the UK response to Covid.

Also that month, we forced the government to reveal why it tried to shield an £800m “high risk, high reward” scientific research body from scrutiny under the FOI Act.

August

Johnson’s resignation sparked a leadership challenge, with the Treasury’s Rishi Sunak and the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office’s Liz Truss emerging as the frontrunners.

But we discovered that these two departments were the least transparent in the entire government in the previous year.

The Treasury refused to comply with more FOI requests than any other department in Whitehall while Sunak was chancellor. The FCDO, where Truss took over as secretary of state in September 2021, was the slowest of all government departments and agencies at releasing information.

In late August, the Cabinet Office’s announcement that it would disband and replace the Clearing House came as a victory for openDemocracy – almost two years after we’d first revealed that the “Orwellian unit” was vetting FOI requests from journalists.

We also reported that the Met Police paid out more than £1.2m in legal battles against staff who accused the force of discrimination.

September

Months after our open letter, the information commissioner hit the Department for International Trade with an enforcement notice – the first to be issued in seven years – over its “persistent failures” in handling FOI requests. The commissioner said the move “clearly marks the start of our new approach to regulating the [FOI] Act”.

Also that month, we found that more than 50 paid employees of global arms companies are working inside the UK’s Ministry of Defence, including nine staffers on long-term secondment from the UK’s biggest weapons manufacturer, BAE Systems.

October

In October, we revealed how the UK's biggest energy supplier spent the summer lobbying the government to cut taxes and avoid “intrusive” regulation. E.ON complained to Conservative ministers about the capping of energy bills, saying it made the UK an “unattractive place to be an energy supplier”.

November

More than 2,300 people died while waiting for a council house in the UK last year, we revealed this month. Some 217,000 households have waited in excess of five years for a home, while 68,000 have waited longer than a decade.

Also in November, the government backed down in its 18-month fight to keep secret a ‘lessons learnt’ review of the Covid pandemic, thanks to our appeal to the information rights watchdog.

December

…But this month, the Department of Health U-turned on this, deciding it wanted to keep the review of the pandemic secret. openDemocracy will now have to go to court to argue for its release.

To end on a positive note, openDemocracy – along with The Guardian and the Campaign for FOI – hosted a parliamentary event where we talked about government accountability and what’s in store for FOI in the future.

And in mid-December, openDemocracy won Campaign of the Year at the British Press Awards for our commitment to seeking transparency in public life. We beat shortlisted entries from The Sunday Times, the Daily Express, The Sun, the Daily Mail, the Mail on Sunday and CNN to take home the biggest prize in our 21-year history.

Let’s see what 2023 holds for openDemocracy and FOI…

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