Freedom of Information: Feature

In the UK, government secrecy is growing. Here's how we fight back

On International Right to Know Day, here’s what openDemocracy has exposed about the threat to Freedom of Information

Jenna Corderoy
Jenna Corderoy
28 September 2021, 10.34am
The number of FOI requests being rejected by the UK government is on the rise
Jeff Gilbert / Alamy Stock Photo

Last week, openDemocracy revealed that the UK government has spent at least £500,000 over the past five years trying to prevent the release of material under Freedom of Information (FOI) rules.

Our reporting showed that at least six government departments have spent heavily on legal battles against decisions by the information regulator, the Information Commissioner’s Office.

And people really do care about this issue. A poll commissioned by openDemocracy found that three-quarters of adults believe transparency is important for the health of the UK’s democracy. Most are concerned that the number of FOI requests being rejected by the government is on the rise.

At openDemocracy, we increasingly find ourselves in a position where we have to appeal rejections of our FOI requests or even go all the way to the courts. Had we not done so, we would never have uncovered details of the controversial Cabinet Office Clearing House. We would never have got hold of the European Research Group’s research.

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Officials should not place obstacles in people’s way. But that’s not quite the reality

Access to information is fundamental in a democracy. In the UK, citizens can send an FOI request to public authorities, wait 20 working days, and are then sent the information that they were seeking.

In theory, FOI can help us scrutinise the actions of our government and allow us to examine how taxpayers’ money has been spent. Documents released can help support us when investigating matters of public interest.

In theory, the process should be swift and efficient, and officials should not place obstacles in people’s way.

But that’s not quite what’s happening in reality.

Last year, openDemocracy set about examining the state of FOI in the UK. Our long-running investigation ended up revealing some very troubling matters.

So, on International Right to Know Day, it’s worth pausing and reflecting on what openDemocracy has revealed over the past year.

The Cabinet Office runs a secretive unit blocking FOI requests

Back in November, we published our first investigation into the Cabinet Office’s Clearing House, which instructs government departments on how to respond to Freedom of Information requests. We discovered how Whitehall departments have been referring ‘sensitive’ FOI requests from journalists and researchers to the Clearing House, which also shares personal information of requesters. Experts believe this may be a breach of data protection law.

Our subsequent investigations have revealed how the Clearing House actively discouraged the release of information about the infected blood scandal. This month, we found out that it interfered with FOI requests relating to the Grenfell Tower fire.

The Cabinet Office rubbished our reporting, calling it “ridiculous and tendentious”, but other news outlets have revealed further details of how the Clearing House operates.

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A Times journalist found that one of his FOI requests to the Environment Agency was flagged to the Clearing House as “sensitive because the customer is a journalist”, undermining the principle that requests should be treated equally, regardless of who they come from. Government departments that received requests from The Times for details about databases were advised by the Clearing House to reject them as the requests “[appear] to have no discernible purpose”.

Politico also recently revealed how the Clearing House worked to block the release of documents to journalists, against the advice of the Department for International Trade’s own information officers.

The government spends a lot of money fighting FOI disclosures

This month, openDemocracy revealed that the UK government spent hundreds of thousands of pounds on legal battles challenging decisions by the Information Commissioner’s Office. Transparency International accused the government of “wasting time and taxpayers’ money”.

In one instance, the Department of Health and Social Care spent more than £129,000 fighting a single case, to try and stop the release of ministerial diaries. Eventually, a judge ruled that most of the information should be released. And in another, the department spent £20,000 trying to stop a journalist from obtaining information about fire safety in hospitals.

More and more public authorities are stonewalling requesters

openDemocracy published our ‘Art of Darkness’ report last November, which highlighted all the other ways our government is undermining FOI. Worryingly, openDemocracy found that public authorities are increasingly not responding to FOI requests at all – known as stonewalling. Offering no response whatsoever puts requesters in legal limbo because without a refusal, they cannot fully enter the appeals process.

The Information Commissioner’s Office, which regulates information rights in the UK, has seen a huge increase in complaints about stonewalling. The ICO’s rulings on stonewalling have risen by 70% in the past five years, with repeat offenders including the Cabinet Office, the Ministry of Justice, the Home Office, NHS England and the Metropolitan Police.

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The information rights regulator is struggling with its FOI caseload:

Earlier this year, openDemocracy analysed hundreds of ICO rulings where it deemed the government’s handling of FOI requests as “unacceptable” and “inadequate”.

But the ICO is struggling. In our ‘Art of Darkness’ report, we found that over the past ten years, the office’s FOI budget has been cut by 41% in real terms, while its complaint caseload has increased by 46%.

The incoming Information Commissioner, John Edwards, has also recently made some worrying comments. Earlier this month, Edwards suggested that for some FOI requests, it is “legitimate” to ask requesters to meet the cost of digging out the relevant information. His comments were immediately criticised by campaigners.

The Metropolitan Police flags ‘high-risk’ FOI requests

It’s not just Whitehall departments that have been flagging sensitive requests. In May, openDemocracy revealed that the Metropolitan Police has been labelling FOI requests about sensitive issues, as well as those from journalists and MPs, as “high profile” – despite transparency rules that say FOIs should be “applicant-blind”. At least four requests from openDemocracy were deemed “high profile”. One of these revealed that the head of the Met Police urged the government to use Extinction Rebellion protests as a “much-needed opportunity” to limit protest laws.

But there are reasons to be cheerful

Despite all this, there are some reasons to be hopeful. We have a fuller understanding of what is happening to our right to information – we know what the major problems are and what needs to be fixed. Our work has attracted cross-party support from politicians, and as our recent poll has shown, people really do care about this right.

We also won a legal victory against the government, forcing transparency on the Clearing House. And more than a dozen current and former national newspaper editors signed our open letter calling for MPs to urgently investigate the British government's handling of Freedom of Information requests.

We have sparked a parliamentary inquiry into the way the Cabinet Office runs its Clearing House and handles FOI requests. The Cabinet Office has even launched its own review into its operations.

Is the tide turning? We just have to continue to fight.

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