The Freedom of Information Act is 20 this year. On good days, I think how it is such an important tool for holding those in power to account. No matter who you are, where you live, what your political leanings are and what you do for a living, you can submit an FOI request to access information from your local council all the way up to Whitehall departments.
But on bad days – and I seem to have more of them lately – I despair at how our rights to access information are being eroded. And I despair at how the government is not allowing us even to understand how they treat our requests for information.
This week openDemocracy revealed that the Cabinet Office runs a secretive unit that screens FOIs from journalists and researchers, even though requesters’ names are supposed to be kept private. It’s called the Clearing House and press freedom campaigners have branded it “Orwellian” – rightly so.
But it gets worse. When I noticed that some of my FOI requests were on the heavily redacted lists we managed to prise out of the Cabinet Office, I put in a request for my personal data to a number of government departments I had come in contact with. What came back shocked me.
Government departments – which are legally obliged to protect my personal information – were not only sharing my details with the centralised Clearing House, they were also talking about me and my work.
Staff at the Attorney General’s Office (AGO) saw no issue in “just flagging that Jenna Corderoy is a journalist” or warning that “once the response is confirmed, I’ll just need [redacted] to sign off on this before it goes out, since Jenna Corderoy is a reporter for Open Democracy”.
In another email, a staff member at the AGO included links to my Twitter profile, my personal blog and my openDemocracy work profile.
A requester's identity shouldn’t really come in it. Were they treating my requests differently because of who I work for and what I do as a living?
The AGO was not the only one. The Foreign and Commonwealth Office talked about my profession and my employer when dealing with my requests. The Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government shared my personal information, too.
Now some may consider that I’m overreacting and that there are worse things to get upset by. But as I’ve been an avid user of the FOI Act for a number of years now, every day I feel like the system is more and more rigged – not just for me, but for other journalists, campaigners, researchers, activists and the general public.
As openDemocracy has set out in our new report on Freedom of Information, the Art of Darkness, there are serious problems about how FOI is working – and not working.
We know about the Clearing House only because of a two-year battle for information with the Cabinet Office. Even then the department refused to release crucial documents. So we are now working with legal firm Leigh Day in a bid to force transparency.
This is incredibly time-consuming, and dispiriting.
The requests I submit to help us develop our investigations at openDemocracy are less and less successful, often taking months and months to get a basic reply.
And then you have to put up more of a fight.
When you’re fighting against refusals over information that is of significant public interest and should be released, it can be a lonely and drawn-out experience. It’s off-putting, and public authorities know that, and perhaps they are getting too comfortable that they can refuse information without any repercussions.
I still remember my first information tribunal. In 2015 I had submitted a FOI request to get hold of more information about a controversial drone strike in Syria. This was refused, so I appealed and appealed and, eventually, ended up with a date in a court before a judge.
The night before I was sick with nerves. I was in my mid-20s and holding down a couple of jobs at the time. With no media organisation supporting me, I was defending myself against high-profile QCs in the room. On the verge of tears, I kept reading, and then re-reading, a speech I had prepared.
The days in court that followed were daunting, and from start to finish, it was a very long process. Eventually I received a court decision in January 2018.
The second time in court was better, and I was slightly more confident. Slightly. This time I had asked for a sample of research materials produced by the European Research Group that were held by the Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority back in January 2018.
At the time, the ERG was a powerful group of Conservative backbenchers, and had received hundreds of thousands of pounds in public funds. The public funds their research, and that research is used to inform its members over key issues, primarily Brexit. I felt the public was entitled to view the research materials they had paid for.
This time I was more familiar with the tribunal processes, and my arguments were more succinct and convincing. Yet it was still a daunting process without representation. Eighteen months later after I made that FOI request, it was ruled that I was allowed access to the research materials. But by then, the ERG was less powerful and not particularly newsworthy, so I kept asking myself: was it actually worth it?
The third time was not so great, despite winning. This time, I forced the Department for Exiting the European Union to release documents from an influential lobbyist, Shanker Singham, to Brexit ministers and senior civil servants after a judge ruled in our favour. The original request was made way back in October 2017, and we didn’t get a result until late last year. All I wanted to know was information relating to the meetings he was having with senior government figures – it had taken two years and countless hours of work to force the government to abide by its own laws.
And now I’m looking at my rejected FOI requests over the government’s handling of the pandemic, especially over the awarding of contracts and the work companies are doing for eye-watering amounts of sums. If I were to challenge them, when would I get a result? Eighteen months down the line? Two years maybe?
But perhaps something might change this time. Working with Leigh Day, we are challenging the Cabinet Office over its refusal to release information about its Clearing House. The more information we get out of the Cabinet Office, the more we can learn about the barrier that stops journalists, campaigners, researchers and the public from accessing vital information.
And the more information we force out from the Cabinet Office over its highly questionable FOI practices, perhaps we can force change, perhaps the broken system can be mended. At least that’s what I think on the good days.