openDemocracyUK: Opinion

Brexit talks are as transparent as the muddy tunnel they’re held in

In whose interests is the UK government negotiating post-Brexit trade deals? They would rather you didn’t know.

Vicky Cann
27 November 2020, 3.03pm
EU and union flags
Stefan Rousseau/PA Wire/PA Images

EU and UK negotiators have been in the so-called Brexit tunnel for weeks, which they enter to supposedly fine-tune a trade deal away from leak-prone politicians and nosy journalists.

Yet as far as Brexit and public accountability are concerned, the UK has been in an endless tunnel. Key British officials do not keep adequate records of their meetings with lobbyists – and even if they did, they really wouldn't want you to see them.

The UK is a serial offender regarding Brexit, trade, transparency and freedom of information. The public and parliamentarians have little chance to scrutinise UK trade deals compared with other countries. Civil society groups have been excluded from the government’s new trade advisory groups. Frances O’Grady, the general secretary of the Trades Union Congress, has warned that the public interest is at risk “if workers’ voices are excluded” from these groups.

Yet the voices of big business have plenty of access to the corridors of power. And the UK simply isn’t transparent about this.

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The UK’s top two officials in Brussels appear to have kept no minutes of the vast majority of the meetings they held with lobbyists during the crucial six months to February this year, a Freedom of Information request by the organisation I work for, Corporate Europe Observatory, has exposed.

The UK’s ambassador to the EU, Tim Barrow, and his deputy, held 21 meetings with lobbyists in this period, according to their response to our request. But they had minutes of only three of them, they said.

The list of 21 meetings included lobby sessions with the CBI, the National Farmers Union, the car industry, manufacturers, and energy companies, with business interests making up the largest category of those met. Think tanks, universities and NGOs also featured on the list.

These UK officials, permanently based in Brussels, are a vital link between EU institutions and the UK government. Who better to know the ins and outs of Brexit negotiations? But it seems that keeping proper records of lobby meetings is not a priority task for the UK’s top officials in Brussels.

Of the three minutes that were taken, these were with a non-governmental organisation (the Jamie Oliver Food Foundation), an academic, and the Scotch Whisky Association. The SWA is not only a major corporate lobbyist but also the former employer of David Frost, Johnson’s chief Brexit negotiator. Frost joined the corporate lobby group as its chief executive straight from the Department for Business in 2014, and in 2016 went back through the revolving door to join the then foreign secretary Boris Johnson’s team as a special adviser, latterly becoming head of the government’s Brexit negotiating team.

Given the lobbying influence of the SWA, minutes of their meeting with the UK’s highest ranking official in Brussels would be of public interest.

The minutes released to us under the freedom of information request read: “Tim [Barrow] met with Karen Betts (CEO, Scotch Whisky Association) this afternoon. She was accompanied by Tom Sallis (Brexit director). I wanted to share a few key takeaways from the meeting…”.

Unfortunately the public will never know what those key takeaways were, as the rest of the note was redacted.

The accompanying letter cites multiple sections of UK Freedom of Information law to justify the redactions to the three sets of minutes. The Foreign Office argues that release of the minutes would likely “prejudice relations” with other countries, “would be likely to have a harmful effect on what is an ongoing policy process”, and “would be likely to prejudice the commercial interests of the attendees at the meetings”.

All of this is contentious, if not verging on hyperbolic. It is hard to see how simple lobby transparency – knowing more about what lobbyists and public officials are saying to each other – could have the devastating consequences suggested. Indeed, that is why these exclusions are not get out of jail free cards, but must be weighed against the public interest. But making that case takes appeals, and months if not years… and meanwhile, the information concerned becomes more and more out of date as the Brexit negotiations wind up.

But perhaps the most worrying rationale given to veto lobby transparency is that, “the attendees at the meetings had an expectation of confidence regarding the information they shared and would not expect that information to be released”. The Foreign Office goes on to insist that disclosure “would discourage external groups and individuals from holding such meetings”. In other words, lobby transparency cannot happen as it might reduce further lobbying in the future!

These three heavily-redacted minutes were released to Corporate Europe Observatory after a seven-month battle and many delays. The final letter contained four separate apologies for delays and mistakes in the process.

Tellingly, even though a previous Freedom of Information request by Corporate Europe Observatory had already established (albeit after a year-long fight) that a list of the UK Ambassador / Permanent Representative’s lobby meetings was releasable under Freedom of Information rules, that argument had to be won all over again with this request.

It’s hard to know if this debacle was due to the pandemic’s impacts on administration, incompetence or something more sinister, such as the apparent blacklisting of certain Freedom of Information requests by the Cabinet Office, as recently exposed by openDemocracy. But whatever the cause, the consequences are serious.

If there is no systematic practice of minute-taking in meetings with lobbyists, there can be no accountability. And if lobby meeting minutes are to be redacted of any meaningful information, it becomes substantially harder to track the extent to which lobbyists – especially corporate lobbyists – are influencing the positions that the UK adopts in post-Brexit trade negotiations.

Freedom of Information is a cornerstone of democracy. For an organisation such as Corporate Europe Observatory, it is fundamental to our work to expose corporate influence in the corridors of power in Brussels, Berlin, Paris and London.

We can’t “take back control” if we don’t know what is going on. But the government’s tunnel vision is a very long way off from delivering on even this basic prerequisite.

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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