Freedom of Information: News

70% of public concerned by UK government secrecy

Exclusive: Conservative voters more vexed about government transparency failures than Labour voters, poll commissioned by openDemocracy finds

Adam Bychawski
21 September 2021, 12.01am
The number of FOI requests being rejected by Boris Johnson's government is rising
PA Images / Alamy Stock Photo

UK voters are seriously concerned by government secrecy, and in particular its failure to answer Freedom of Information (FOI) requests, a survey has found.

A poll commissioned by openDemocracy found that three-quarters of adults believe transparency is important for the health of the UK’s democracy.

But most are concerned that the number of FOI requests being rejected by the government is on the rise.

Last year, 60% of requests were answered without releasing all the material – compared to just 40% in 2010. The poll, carried out by SavantaComRes, found that seven in ten UK adults were concerned by this development.

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Views on government transparency are shared across the political spectrum, with 83% of Conservative voters and 76% of Labour voters agreeing that it is important for democracy (a rating of 7-10 on a scale from 0-10).

Responding to the figures, Tom Brake, director of the campaign group Unlock Democracy, said "transparency is an essential ingredient of any strong and thriving democracy. This isn't the view of a political elite: openDemocracy's evidence shows it is the view of the overwhelming majority of the public.”

The findings come as an openDemocracy investigation revealed that the British government has spent at least half a million pounds on legal costs fighting FOI disclosures, with the Department of Health and Social Care spending more than £129,000 on a single case, in an attempt to prevent the disclosure of ministerial diaries.

In June, openDemocracy won a court case against the government over the 'Orwellian' Clearing House which vets FOI requests from journalists and others. The Cabinet Office was criticised by the judge for a “profound lack of transparency” that may “extend to ministers”.

openDemocracy’s legal victory prompted the launch of a parliamentary inquiry by the Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee (PACAC) into the Clearing House.

There are now signs that increasing government secrecy may be eroding public trust. In a separate survey of openDemocracy readers, almost all of the 4,000 respondents believed the government was “not at all transparent” and said they would be much less likely to vote for a party with a record of secrecy.

People answering the survey said that government secrecy makes them feel “angry”, “cheated”, “suspicious” and “betrayed”.

Almost all respondents thought transparency watchdogs need to be strengthened and that Freedom of Information legislation should be extended to cover private companies delivering public services.

Last year, openDemocracy’s ‘Art of Darkness’ report revealed how the FOI budget of the Information Commissioner’s Office – which regulates information rights in the UK – was cut by 41% in real terms over the past ten years. Over the same period, its complaint caseload increased by 46%.

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The PACAC inquiry into the Clearing House is currently taking submissions of evidence. Committee chair William Wragg said at the launch of the inquiry that “the perceived opacity of how the FOI Clearing House operates has the potential to damage trust in governance and transparency legislation. As a matter of trust, we felt it is something that must be addressed at the earliest opportunity."

This week, the Cabinet Office announced that it will hold its own review into the use of the Clearing House to “identify if or where guidance might be improved or clarified”.

Savanta ComRes interviewed 2,075 UK adults aged 18+ online between 13 and 15 August 2021. Data were weighted to be demographically representative of UK adults 18+ by age, gender, region, and other socio-economic characteristics including social grade.

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.

Hear from:

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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