Freedom of Information: News

Editors and MPs urge watchdog to act over escalating government secrecy

openDemocracy leads campaign to enforce transparency laws as government accused of abusing Freedom of Information Act and blacklisting reporters

Martin Williams
7 April 2022, 12.15am
Boris Johnson's government was accused of a “profound lack of transparency” by a judge last year.
SOPA Images Limited/Alamy Live News

More than 110 MPs, journalists and campaigners frustrated by escalating government secrecy have joined forces to call for better enforcement of transparency rules.

They have signed an open letter telling the UK’s new information commissioner, John Edwards, that he must do more to hold ministers and departments accountable.

The letter, coordinated by openDemocracy, says the current approach to enforcing the Freedom of Information (FOI) Act is “clearly not working”. It urges Edwards to defend the public’s right to know, including allocating more resources to investigate complaints about secrecy in Whitehall.

In response, Edwards said he recognised “the concern around timely access to information” and insisted that addressing this was a “priority”.

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Our intervention follows a string of revelations about Whitehall’s abuse of the FOI Act.

Last year, a British judge criticised the Cabinet Office for its “profound lack of transparency” after openDemocracy exposed the existence of an FOI ‘Clearing House’ in government, which was ‘blacklisting’ requests from journalists and others.

A parliamentary inquiry into the Clearing House was launched in July 2021 and is still ongoing.

And recently, dozens of FOI requests about the partygate scandal have been rebuffed by officials who claim the public does not have the right to see incriminating details.

Katharine Viner, who edits The Guardian, Observer editor Paul Webster, senior Tory MP David Davis, and Private Eye editor Ian Hislop are among the signatories.

Others include the Green Party’s Caroline Lucas, former shadow chancellor John McDonnell, SNP politician Ronnie Cowan, and comedian Joe Lycett – along with a string of journalists and campaign groups.

READ MORE: See the full open letter here.

It comes as the Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) faces an unprecedented backlog of FOI inquiries – made worse by the pandemic and chronic under-funding.

The authority only resolved 4,000 complaints in 2020-21, the lowest number for more than a decade, and the list of unfinished casework grew by 56%.

Individuals who file complaints about transparency can often expect to wait months or even years for them to be fully addressed – by which time the information may no longer be relevant.

What’s more, the ICO took no action against any government department last year, despite repeated evidence that Whitehall is abusing transparency rules.

Last year, openDemocracy revealed that 2020 was the worst on record for freedom of information, with just 41% of requests to the government granted in full.

The open letter says: “The accountability that FOI provides is in real danger of disappearing, which poses a threat to the long-term national interest of this country. It is time for fresh thinking and bold action to deliver FOI transparency in the public interest.”

It urges the ICO to allocate more resources to investigating complaints about FOI. It also calls for clear protocols to be introduced to deal with authorities that have systemic patterns of poor transparency.

Investigations by openDemocracy have revealed how the Cabinet Office’s secretive Clearing House vets sensitive requests for information.

It has interfered with requests about Grenfell Tower, telling the housing department to alter responses about the disaster. And it blocked the release of sensitive files about the contaminated blood scandal, which had been requested by the son of one of thousands of people who died.

Last year, openDemocracy’s reporting led a high court judge to criticise the government for a “profound lack of transparency” that might “extend to ministers”. Our investigations also sparked a parliamentary inquiry by the Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee.

At the time, the government pledged to review the way it handles FOI requests. But five months later – in January this year – it admitted that an investigator had not even been appointed.

openDemocracy also revealed the government had spent at least half a million pounds on legal fees over the last five years, trying to prevent information from being released under FOI.

FOIs are a useful tool for journalists to hold public bodies to account, but the system is broken.

Michelle Stanistreet, NUJ general secretary

Appearing before MPs last year, the new information commissioner admitted he had not read the ruling from openDemocracy’s landmark court case. Edwards went on to spark fury by suggesting that the government could charge fees to members of the public who want to access information.

He said people should “entrust” Whitehall to release “the most relevant information”, instead of requesting lots of unnecessary extra information.

Our letter to Edwards today says the “current regulatory approach to FOI is clearly not working” and asks him to meet with openDemocracy and other stakeholders.

Michelle Stanistreet, NUJ general secretary, said: “The present delays in the FOI system can kill a time-sensitive story stone dead. It can take up to 18 months – or years, especially if appeals are involved – to get full replies. This isn’t good enough. Journalists report that government departments can be obstructive and hide behind a culture of secrecy.

“FOIs are a useful tool for journalists to hold public bodies to account, but the system is broken and needs swifter action to be taken against those who break the time limits to replies. The act also needs to be broadened out to include private companies running public services.”

In his response to the letter, Edwards added: “We acknowledge the concerns expressed in this letter. FOI plays an important part in civic engagement and holding public services to account, and we share the desire to see the law work effectively.

“The ICO’s role is to administer the law, and we always want to hear views that help us to understand where our role can be improved…

“We all benefit from a modern law, and I think there are suggestions in this letter that warrant further consideration. My office will be part of those discussions, though decisions about law reform are for ministers and Parliament to make.”

Page 1 of Open letter to new Information Commissioner
Contributed to DocumentCloud by Ally Tibbitt (openDemocracy) • View document or read text

The full list of signatories:

  • openDemocracy
  • Campaign for Freedom of Information
  • Katharine Viner, editor-in-chief, The Guardian
  • Paul Webster, editor, The Observer
  • Janine Gibson, assistant editor, FT
  • Ian Hislop, editor, Private Eye
  • Jason Beattie, assistant editor, Daily Mirror
  • Joe Lycett, comedian and campaigner
  • David Davis MP
  • Caroline Lucas MP
  • John McDonnell MP
  • Margaret Hodge MP
  • Andy Slaughter MP
  • Tommy Sheppard MP
  • Dan Carden MP
  • Ronnie Cowan MP
  • Richard Burgon MP
  • Lord Prem Sikka
  • Peter Oborne, journalist
  • Carole Cadwalladr, The Observer
  • Michael Crick, journalist
  • Paul Mason, journalist
  • David Aaronovitch, journalist
  • Oliver Bullough, journalist and author
  • Josie Long, comedian and campaigner
  • Michelle Stanistreet, general secretary, National Union of Journalists
  • Alan Rusbridger, editor of Prospect and former editor-in-chief of The Guardian
  • Megan Gibson, executive editor, Foreign, The New Statesman
  • Susan Hawley, executive director, Spotlight on Corruption
  • Damian Kahya, editor, Unearthed
  • Tom Brake, director, Unlock Democracy
  • Lionel Barber, journalist and former editor of the Financial Times
  • John Burn-Murdoch, chief data reporter, FT
  • Ben De Pear, journalist and former editor of Channel 4 News
  • Jo Maugham, director of Good Law Project
  • Daniel Bruce, chief executive of Transparency International UK
  • Dorothy Guerrero, head of policy, Global Justice Now
  • Mary Fitzgerald, director of expression, Open Society Foundations
  • The Centre for Investigative Journalism
  • European Centre for Press and Media Freedom
  • Open Rights Group
  • Foxglove
  • Full Fact
  • Tax Justice Network
  • Chris Blackhurst, commentator and former editor of The Independent
  • Andrew Lownie, author and historian
  • Anthony Barnett, writer and campaigner
  • Tom Bower, journalist
  • Sayra Tekin, director of legal for the News Media Association
  • Ruth Smeeth, chief executive, Index on Censorship
  • David Leigh, investigative journalist
  • Patrick Worrall, author and former editor of FactCheck at Channel 4 News
  • Pat Younge, co-MD Cardiff Productions. Chair, British Broadcasting Challenge
  • Steven Barnett, professor of communications, University of Westminster
  • Jean Seaton, professor of media history, University of Westminster
  • Chris Waiting, CEO, The Conversation
  • Chris Day, PhD student, media history
  • Lindsay Mackie, writer
  • Jess Search, CEO, The Doc Society
  • Rosaleen Hughes, former BBC producer
  • John Newbigin, chair, CounterculturalLLP
  • Reporters Without Borders UK
  • Nick Dearden, director, Global Justice Now
  • The Ferret
  • English PEN
  • Ian Cobain, journalist
  • Dr Ben Worthy, senior lecturer, Birkbeck, University of London
  • Tim Tate, investigative journalist and author
  • Tommy Greene, journalist and Bertha Fellow
  • William Goodwin, investigations editor, Computer Weekly
  • Chris Garrard, co-director, Culture Unstained
  • Martin Thorley, research fellow at University of Exeter
  • Ben Lucas, journalist
  • Jason Evans, founder of Factor 8 - The Independent Haemophilia Group
  • Louise Crow, chief executive of mySociety
  • Iain Overton, journalist
  • Ian Wylie, director of the Civic Journalism Lab at Newcastle University
  • Jon Baines, senior data protection specialist, Mishcon de Reya LLP
  • Mária Žuffová, research associate at the European University Institute
  • Matt Burgess, journalist
  • Big Brother Watch
  • Martin Rosenbaum, journalist
  • Professor Nigel Ashton, LSE
  • Dr Paul Lashmar, City University London
  • Gavin Sheridan, co-founder Right to Know (Ireland)
  • Warwick Mansell, journalist
  • Gavin Freeguard
  • Global Witness
  • Lynn Wyeth, director, Info Planet
  • Dr Jac St John, senior researcher, UK Unredacted, University of Westminster
  • Helen Darbishire, executive director of Access Info Europe
  • Tim Turner, director, 2040 Training
  • Tom Webb, editor, Global Data Review
  • Miriam Turner, co-executive director, Friends of the Earth England, Wales and N. Ireland
  • Hugh Knowles, co-executive director, Friends of the Earth England, Wales and N. Ireland
  • Merle Gering, NADPO (National Association of Data Protection and Freedom of Information Officers)
  • Tom Warren, journalist
  • Daire Collins, documentary filmmaker
  • Leigh Baldwin, editor, SourceMaterial
  • Conor Matchett, journalist
  • Russell Scott, investigative journalist, Good Law Project
  • Glyn Mottershead, senior lecturer, Data Journalism, City University
  • George Peretz QC (England and Wales) BL (Ireland)
  • Paul Bradshaw, associate professor, Birmingham City University School of Media
  • Sid Ryan, researcher at the Centre for Health and the Public Interest
  • Dr Richard Danbury, course director, MA in investigative journalism, City, University of London
  • Ted Jeory, co-director, Finance Uncovered
  • Seth Thévoz, historian and journalist
  • James Dowsett, journalist
  • Dr Emma L Briant, owner, Maven of Persuasion LLC & associate at University of Cambridge, Center for Financial Reporting & Accountability
  • Lawrence Carter, special projects editor, Unearthed
  • Henry Dyer, journalist
  • Dawn Alford, executive director, Society of Editors
  • Peter Jukes, executive editor, Byline Times
  • The Bureau of Investigative Journalism

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