Freedom of Information: News

Tory advisers allowed to ‘approve’ government Freedom of Information replies

Exclusive: Campaigners criticise ‘deeply suspicious’ practice that allows SpAds to vet transparency disclosures

Jenna Corderoy
Jenna Corderoy
26 October 2021, 12.00am
Political figures are screening FOI responses in at least five government departments
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Howard Lake via Flickr. CC BY-SA 2.0

Conservative Party advisers are being allowed to vet government documents before they are released under the Freedom of Information (FOI) Act.

Emails obtained by openDemocracy show that political figures are screening information in at least five government departments, which transparency campaigners warn is “deeply suspicious”.

The findings follow openDemocracy’s new report, ‘Access Denied’, which exposes the extent of the government's attack on FOI.

Some FOI officials have been directly instructed to gain approval from special advisers (SpAds) before they are allowed to release information.

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Guidance from the Department for Education says: “If you’re going to disclose information that has never been in the public domain, you'll need to contact DfE’s special advisers (SpAds) to tell them your plans and they'll need to approve (‘clear’) the response.”

Another document says: “At present, SpAds want to see any requests releasing new information into the public domain in order to be sighted on possible reaction or comment in the media. They may also want to see any particularly sensitive responses or requests dealing with areas in which they are particularly interested.”

At least one of openDemocracy’s FOI requests has gone through this clearance system.

In March 2020, openDemocracy submitted a request about Quintessentially, a company founded by Conservative Party co-chairman Ben Elliot, whose services the government paid a reported £1.4m for.

After a delay, the Department for International Trade rejected the request. An internal email reveals that officials had flagged that it was sent by a journalist.

In another case, Politico revealed how the same department triages FOI requests based partly on the identity of the applicant. Campaigners argue that this undermines FOI Act, which says requests should be treated the same no matter who they are from.

Political vetting and spin appear to be hard-wired into the FOI process by this government.

FOI expert Martin Rosenbaum has found that SpAds at the Department for Business, Energy & Industrial Strategy were also involved in approving FOI responses.

Internal documents from the Ministry of Defence say that part of a special adviser’s role is “ensuring that the release of information from the Department does not harm the government’s objectives”, and that they “have a legitimate role in scrutinising proposed releases of information under FOI”.

It goes on to say that SpAds will be interested in “current issues” and “media outlets or website (i.e. request from journalists)”. It adds: “A response may not be released until SpAds have confirmed that they, on behalf of the secretary of state, are content.”

Labour MP Andy Slaughter said: “Political vetting and spin appear to be hard-wired into the FOI process by this government. This is not how the Freedom of Information Act was supposed to work.

“Rather than giving priority to effect the law in the clearest and quickest way, the intention is to put as many hurdles and delays in as possible. What is the role of SpAds here except to sanitise or obstruct the publication of information that has already passed all proper checks?”

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‘Clearance’

In 2018, the Scottish information watchdog found that media requests received by the Scottish government were sent to special advisers and ministers for “clearance”.

The commissioner said journalists were “subject to a different process for clearance” and “subjected to an additional layer of clearance which is likely to delay the consideration of the case”. He added that the process was “far from the applicant-blind principle of freedom of information legislation”.

The watchdog also found that the Scottish government’s FOI policies and procedures were “not clear enough about the role of special advisers in responding to FOI requests”.

In Northern Ireland, it was discovered that a former special adviser had blocked Stormont civil servants from releasing several FOI responses.

SpAds’ involvement suggests people’s right to information is being doctored for political purposes

Tom Brake, director of Unlock Democracy, said: “There is something deeply suspicious about SpAds – who are political appointees – filtering FOI requests.

“Their involvement suggests people's right to information is being doctored for political purposes. This runs completely counter to the intention of the FOI Act.”

Further emails obtained by openDemocracy between the Department for Transport and the Clearing House show that draft FOI responses and submissions to the information rights regulator, the Information Commissioner’s Office, are shared with special advisers.

In one instance, a government official forwarded a FOI request about High Speed 2 to the Clearing House, stating: “Please find attached a new case referral form along with a proposed draft FOI reply and the information for release... Our SpAds office [has] also expressed an interest in the case and we are currently clearing the attached draft with them.”

Another email said: “We have obtained legal clearance from our lawyer and are clearing the response through our SpAds office.”

Steve Goodrich, head of research and investigations at Transparency International UK, said: “Securing timely public access to information is a key safeguard against abuse of office and a pillar of accountability in modern government.

“The law sets clear limits on the public’s right to know, but these exemptions do not extend to disclosures that might prove embarrassing politically for the party of government. Special advisers should not be acting as gatekeepers for legitimate requests for information about the activity of their boss’ department.”

A government spokesperson told openDemocracy: “The Freedom of Information Act sets out a statutory framework for access to information, and all requests are considered with due process and consideration in line with the legal tests.

“Special advisers may give assistance and advice on any aspect of department business, including on requests for information made under the Act, and may convey the minister’s views to officials. This has been the case under successive administrations.”

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