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A year after Partygate, why is the government still being so secretive?

A year after the news broke about Partygate, the Cabinet Office is still refusing openDemocracy’s FOI requests on key evidence 

Jenna Corderoy
Jenna Corderoy
11 January 2023, 3.48pm

It is more than a year since news emerged that Boris Johnson, Rishi Sunak and Downing Street staff had attended parties in Number 10 during the pandemic lockdown.

And though the details of the scandal were broken by journalists 13 months ago, the Cabinet Office is still refusing to disclose documents, answer the most basic questions about evidence, or – strangest of all – confirm the existence of CCTV that the public already knows about.

Johnson vowed at the time that lessons had been learnt. But the government’s fight to keep evidence secret after all this time suggests otherwise.

The public interest is clear. Even today, fresh allegations about what went on at Downing Street in 2020 and 2021 are emerging: a new podcast claims that staff destroyed evidence before Gray and the police could get to it.

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Partygate angered the nation. While the government imposed severe restrictions on people’s everyday lives to stop the spread of Covid, and as hundreds of thousands of people died, Whitehall staff had been enjoying drinks in the garden, birthday cake with the PM, and even karaoke – while security and cleaning staff were treated poorly.   

Senior civil servant Sue Gray was tasked with investigating the gatherings, and eventually published her report after the Met Police handed 83 people a total of 126 retrospective fines. Johnson is also being investigated by a group of MPs on whether he misled parliament over Partygate.

A government spokesperson claimed: “The Cabinet Office takes its obligations under the Freedom of Information Act extremely seriously, and all requests are handled in line with the legislation.”

But here’s what it still won’t make public.

Details of the photos

When Gray’s report was published, only nine photos of two events were included. They showed Johnson, Rishi Sunak and then cabinet secretary Simon Case celebrating the prime minister’s birthday. Other photos showed Johnson raising a glass at a leaving party. But other people’s faces were completely blurred.  

A lot more than that were provided to Gray’s team, “some official and others taken on personal devices”. What was in them?

Gray wrote: “I have considered whether any of these should be published. I concluded that the official photographs should be within scope for disclosure only where they are particularly pertinent in helping to understand the nature and purpose of a gathering.” 

Naturally, at the time, openDemocracy asked for more details under the Freedom of Information Act. We asked basic questions such as: how many photos were submitted as evidence to the inquiry? How many of these photos were official and how many were taken on personal devices? How many photos in total is Johnson pictured in? 

The Cabinet Office’s response was that answering these basic questions would “reveal details about the investigation” conducted by Gray, “which would reveal information about the investigative methods and information gathering techniques, and assist a person to avoid detection in the future”.

“The release of information following an investigation would therefore seriously impact on future investigations,” the Cabinet Office added. 

The photos themselves

We also asked for copies of all the photos that were handed to Gray’s team. The Cabinet Office once again refused. It said publishing the photos could dissuade people from coming forward in other investigations into improper conduct.

“It is vital that participants provide their information freely and openly in an environment where they can trust that their information will not be disclosed,” it said. “If participants did not trust that their information would be kept in confidence then it would deter them from coming forward and cooperating with future investigations.”

openDemocracy is challenging the response. Words, and nine highly blurred photos, only go so far in illustrating the seriousness of the rule-breaking that occurred in Whitehall, as we argue in a complaint to the information rights watchdog, the Information Commissioner’s Office. We have argued that the public must be shown all the photos that were provided to Gray and her team in order to understand the full extent of what was happening in Whitehall; this week’s allegations make that clearer than ever.

Tom Brake, director of Unlock Democracy, said the Cabinet Office’s defence was “less than convincing”.  

“It is in the public interest for as much information about Partygate to be placed in the public domain as possible,” he said. “The Cabinet Office, with their stonewalling and refusal to answer openDemocracy's most basic questions and hand over photographic evidence, have taken the opposite view.”


Not only does secrecy persist with the Partygate photos, but also CCTV footage. 

The Metropolitan Police launched Operation Hillman to investigate the social gatherings during lockdown and, a few days before the publication of Gray’s report, announced its completion: “A team of 12 detectives worked through 345 documents, including emails, door logs, diary entries and witness statements, 510 photographs and CCTV images and 204 questionnaires as part of a careful and thorough enquiry.” 

openDemocracy sent a FOI request to the Cabinet Office asking for thumbnails of CCTV footage, but the department could neither confirm nor deny it held that information. “Information regarding movements within high-profile and secure government buildings is highly sensitive. This especially applies for CCTV footage,” the FOI response says. “There is a credible risk that confirmation or denial may be used to assume the identities of individuals that may have been pertinent to the Second Permanent Secretary’s investigation and provided information.”

The Cabinet Office also added: “Whether or not the Cabinet Office provided CCTV footage to the Metropolitan Police Service’s Operation Hillman has not been confirmed or denied by the government.”

These rejections shouldn’t come as a surprise. After all, the Cabinet Office has presided over the secretive Clearing House and low FOI disclosure rates.

But with fresh revelations and allegations this week, it’s clear that Partygate isn’t going to go away any time soon.

‘Transparency, not excuses’

Liberal Democrat chief whip Wendy Chamberlain was unimpressed by the government silence.

She told openDemocracy: “These photos absolutely need to be published. It’s in the interest of the public to do so. If they are being hidden in case they impact a future investigation, does this mean they contain evidence to further incriminate Boris Johnson and cabinet ministers for breaking rules the rest of the country followed?

“We need transparency, not excuses. We cannot keep being drip fed with new Partygate scandals every few months.

“If the Cabinet Office refuses to share photos or even tell the public how many photos Johnson and Rishi appeared in, the new ethics advisor must intervene and force their hand.”

Matt Fowler, co-founder of Covid-19 Bereaved Families for Justice, said the scandal was "grim and shameful”.

“To make matters worse," he said, “many of those that faced the worst during the pandemic such as the bereaved, doctors and nurses and other key workers have continued to suffer, and are being ignored in the Covid inquiry... The injustice of it all is unpalatable.”

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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