Freedom of Information: Opinion

Why are British politicians so scared of transparency?

From scientific advice and procurement contracts to Freedom of Information requests, our government has drastically reduced transparency during the COVID-19 pandemic. That’s a real threat to our democracy.

Peter Geoghegan Jenna Corderoy
Peter Geoghegan Jenna Corderoy
23 May 2020, 7.00am
TV Pool/PA Wire/PA Images

Greg Clark is not known as a thorn in his government’s side. The Conservative MP for Tunbridge Wells has held numerous cabinet roles in his fifteen years in the Commons.

Clark’s years of ministerial service made his letter to Boris Johnson this week all the more remarkable. Writing as the chair of the Science and Technology Committee, Clark criticised the government’s “inadequate” COVID-19 testing regime and the “slowness” of mitigation strategies.

But calmly-spoken Clark was particularly critical of one aspect of the British government’s COVID-19 response in particular: transparency. Or, rather, the lack of it.

There have, he told Johnson, “been a number of concerns over the transparency of the scientific advice given and its relationship to government decisions.” The one-time business secretary singled out the government’s repeated refusal to publish details about the Scientific Advisory Group on Emergencies (Sage), including the membership of the key group and the papers it relied upon on issuing its guidance.

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Clark recommended that Johnson “increase transparency” of the government’s coronavirus response. But the prospects for some sunlight in the corridors of power looks slight. Indeed, time and again, Westminster – and Holyrood – has gone out of its way to stymie attempts to hold government to account in recent months.

Governments across the UK have repeatedly tried to evade transparency, from curtailing Freedom of Information legislation to refusing to publish details of multi-million pound COVID contracts given out without normal tendering processes. Governments have yet to release details of the location of care home deaths or scientific papers.

The public have a right to know how the government reached conclusions on its pandemic response, and how and where their money is being spent in the efforts to procure personal protective equipment and increase testing capacity. Without this information, citizens are losing a fundamental right to transparency. That’s a threat to good government and democracy.

At openDemocracy, we are working hard to hold the government to account. We have been forced to threaten legal action to force it to publish details of its ‘unprecedented’ transfer of NHS data to tech giants. But our task is made even harder when our journalists are banned from asking questions at daily COVID-19 briefings.

Transparency is not just an academic exercise. It is crucial. As a recent UN paper stated, “This is a time when, more than ever, governments need to be open and transparent, responsive and accountable to the people they are seeking to protect.”

Freedom of information is one area that the UN singled out as in need of protection. Here in the UK, the Freedom of Information Act is a key tool through which journalists can shine light on the decisions that are being taken by public bodies during these extraordinary times.

Even before the pandemic struck, there were serious problems with how Freedom of Information operates in the UK. And it’s got worse.

Some public authorities have taken the opportunity to suspend rights to information all together. The London Borough of Redbridge said it “will be suspending work on all Freedom of Information requests during this time”. Greater Manchester Police has done likewise, even vaingloriously thanking “the support of the media in keeping the backlog of requests to a minimum by ceasing new requests during this time.” The Police Service Northern Ireland asked people to withdraw FOI requests.

This is a time when, more than ever, governments need to be open and transparent, responsive and accountable to the people they are seeking to protect

UN report on COVID-19 and human right

Public authorities appear to have government support for this Freedom of Information rollback. In mid-March, Robert Jenrick, secretary for housing, communities and local government, tweeted that “tasks like [Freedom of Information] requests will be cut or deferred” (which is slightly different to the government press release he linked to, which says “Councils will be able to use their discretion on deadlines for Freedom of Information requests”).

In Scotland, it’s even more worrying. In April, the Scottish National Party-led parliament in Edinburgh passed a bill that allowed Scottish public authorities to take as much as five times the standard 20 days to respond to Freedom of Information requests. Earlier this week, the Scottish government was forced to withdraw all the emergency Freedom of Information relaxations following opposition from parliamentarians.

Of course, these are tumultuous times, and it is understandable that government and public authorities may take longer than usual in responding to requests for information – that is reasonable. What is not reasonable, however, is when authorities essentially remove the public’s right to information.

As for the Information Commissioner’s Office, it is taking an “empathetic and pragmatic approach” to regulating access to information. But it still calls for public authorities to recognise transparency and seek as far as possible to continue to comply with their obligations.

The coronavirus may have an impact on how the Information Commissioner’s Office deals with complaints about accessing information from public authorities, creating more of a backlog. In normal circumstances, the commission can often take up to six months to process a complaint, which can be frustrating enough, especially if the complaint relates to information that is of high public interest.

And we will have to brace ourselves for further frustration as the months roll by, while “the Commissioner has therefore taken the decision to amend her casework approaches to reduce the burden on public authorities in these unprecedented times”, according to one piece of communication openDemocracy received from the information commission. And we may experience further delays when taking complaints before a judge.

In the midst of a pandemic, delays in processing public records requests and even incomplete responses are to be expected – but at a time of national crisis, being able to scrutinise those in power is even more important.

Crucial decisions are being taken every day. Millions of pounds of public money is being spent, often with very limited oversight. To wait a couple of months for a response to a request that is very much in the public interest fundamentally undermines the right to know.

Freedom of Information suspensions and delays are not just confined to the UK – it’s international, as the Global Investigative Journalism Network has shown. But in stark contrast, it’s been suggested in New Zealand that requests concerning public health should be prioritised, with the Minister of Justice tweeting “The Official Information Act remains important for holding power to account during this extraordinary time.”

It is our job as journalists to defend the right to information under the Freedom of Information Act. If we are not vigilant and don’t defend it vigorously, it can be easily watered down and taken away from us – especially in extraordinary times.

As Greg Clark has shown this week, government transparency has never been more vital – or more worth fighting for.

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