MPs condemn UK government's ‘abuse’ of taxpayer money to fight FOIs
Exclusive: Government accused of ‘misusing’ vast sums after openDemocracy revealed half a million pounds was spent on legal costs to fight information releases
MPs have accused the UK government of misusing public funds by spending ‘eye-watering figures’ fighting to keep information secret in court.
Over the past five years, government departments spent at least half a million pounds on efforts to prevent the release of information under Freedom of Information (FOI) legislation, openDemocracy revealed on Tuesday.
“Ministers should not be abusing taxpayers’ money to block information from being released under Freedom of Information,” Labour Party deputy leader Angela Rayner told openDemocracy.
“This contempt for basic standards of honesty, integrity and transparency is just the latest example of the Conservatives breaking the rules and trying to rig the rules in their favour.
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“The government must follow the law and the public should have access to all information as outlined in Freedom of Information law, particularly when it comes to the use, or misuse, of taxpayers’ money,” she added.
At least six government departments have spent heavily on legal challenges to decisions from the information regulator, the Information Commissioner’s Office, to release information in response to FOI requests.
The Department of Health has spent £278,500 on court battles since 2016, including £129,000 on a single case to prevent the publication of ministerial diaries, which it lost. A further five departments have spent tens of thousands of pounds each on legal costs.
The Tories must end wasting vast sums of public money to hide potentially embarrassing information
Other government departments were unable to tell openDemocracy how much they had spent on appeals, claiming that it would cost too much to investigate and provide figures. This includes the Cabinet Office, which runs a controversial Clearing House unit that vets FOI responses from across government.
“The Tory government has a track record in avoiding accountability and transparency,” Stewart Hosie, the SNP’s shadow cabinet office minister, told openDemocracy.
“These eye-watering figures are cause for concern and the Tories must end wasting vast sums of public money to hide potentially embarrassing information from the public.”
Zack Polanski, democracy and citizen engagement spokesperson for the Green Party, said the government seems “determined to shut the door on openness and transparency, at any price”.
Yesterday, openDemocracy revealed that the Clearing House intervened to alter responses to requests for information about the Grenfell Tower fire. In at least one instance, the unit told a department to block information from being released.
There are signs that the government's handling of Freedom of Information requests is damaging public trust. Nearly three-quarters of UK adults are concerned about government secrecy, according to a recent poll commissioned by openDemocracy.
In an essay published today setting out his priorities ahead of the party’s conference this weekend, Labour leader Keir Starmer has vowed to end “the outrageous way government departments refuse Freedom of Information requests”.
The government said it was “committed to being open and transparent”, but needed to “balance the need of making information available with our duty to protect sensitive information”.
A government spokesperson said: “Just like any other public authority, under the FOI Act the government has a right to appeal ICO rulings and set out our position when we feel there is a need to protect particularly sensitive information, including related to national security and personal data.
“We routinely disclose information beyond our obligations under the FOI Act, and are releasing more proactive publications than ever before.”
Why should you care about freedom of information?
From coronation budgets to secretive government units, journalists have used the Freedom of Information Act to expose corruption and incompetence in high places. Tony Blair regrets ever giving us this right. Today's UK government is giving fewer and fewer transparency responses, and doing it more slowly. But would better transparency give us better government? And how can we get it?
Join our experts for a free live discussion at 5pm UK time on 15 June.
Claire Miller Data journalism and FOI expert
Martin Rosenbaum Author of ‘Freedom of Information: A Practical Guidebook’; former BBC political journalist
Jenna Corderoy Investigative reporter at openDemocracy and visiting lecturer at City University, London
Chair: Ramzy Alwakeel Head of news at openDemocracy
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