12 February 2021

Mishandling of FOI requests is a threat to democracy


Dr Robert Rines was a self-styled American zoological expert who became briefly famous in the 1970s as a hunter for the Loch Ness monster. Underwater equipment deployed by his organisation, the Academy of Applied Sciences (despite its name, a purely private and non-academic body), took three photographs of what appeared to be a large unknown animal in the loch. The first picture, dating from 1972, is almost certainly faked; the others, taken in 1975, are of driftwood. Despite the total lack of evidence for the creature, Rines proposed transplanting two bottle-nosed American dolphins to search the loch. And – get this – Whitehall mandarins pursued the idea seriously, though it eventually came to nothing.

We know of this preposterous episode because many years later the Sunday Times published documents showing how governments in the 1970s and 1980s were intent on discovering the ‘truth’ of the monster, for purposes mainly of tourism. The newspaper found this out by making a request under the Freedom of Information (FOI) Act of 2000. Other revelations, less jaw-dropping but more serious, made by journalists due to requests made under the act include the expenses scandal that broke in 2009, which led to several MPs serving jail terms; the abuse of diplomatic immunity by staff of overseas embassies in the UK who had been arrested for serious crimes; and Prince Charles’s lobbying of ministers (the ‘black spider memos’) in 2004 and 2005.

The FOI Act, which came into force in 2005, gives all citizens the right to ask for information from public-sector bodies, including central-government departments. These in turn (with some exemptions, notably on national security) have an obligation to provide the information within 20 working days. It is an important tool in exposing wrongdoing, malfeasance and sheer waste and wackiness in public administration. Unfortunately, Boris Johnson’s government, which even its strongest supporters would have to admit has a large representation of underperforming ministers, is handling FOI requests with culpable indolence and delay.

The Open Democracy website reported in November that response rates to FOI requests are at their lowest since the Act came into force. Moreover, the requests are supposed to be confidential: the government ought not to know who has made them. Yet this requirement appears not to be being honoured. The Cabinet Office unit, known as the Clearing House, which processes the requests, is an opaque body.

Last week the editors of leading UK newspapers (including The Times, for which I work) wrote a collective open letter criticising the Government’s handling of FOI requests. The letter called for an investigation into the operation of the Clearing House and a strengthened role for the Information Commissioner’s Office in overseeing how the system operates.

You may think it’s self-serving for us journalists to demand information, but it’s not. It’s what we do for a living but it’s also a civic obligation. The FOI Act is drafted not just for journalists but for all citizens. And if the Government is allowed to pick and choose what requests it responds to, based on what is convenient and whether they like the applicant, then the quality of British democracy is attenuated.

Politicians in Britain are, in the main, far from the popular stereotype of cynical operators. The expenses scandal of a decade ago has played its part in forcing a clean-up of standards and an expansion of scrutiny of their behaviour. But politicians are still wary of the publication of official records, and this inherent reluctance born of a secretive culture seems to me the only explanation of the current Government’s disinclination to adhere to the spirit of the FOI Act.

It’s long been like this. When the Act first came into force in 2005, the Treasury released information relating to Black Wednesday in 1992 – the episode when financial market volatility forced the exit of sterling from the European exchange-rate mechanism. The Conservatives disingenuously complained that the release was politically motivated (as it came shortly before the 2005 general election).

This isn’t good enough. Information needs to be released and aired in a timely way, and on request, to ensure that government works properly and citizens are better informed. The fact that we are currently in a once-in-a-century global pandemic forces the issue even more. The Government’s record in dealing with the crisis has elicited much criticism for dilatoriness and among many other things, inadequate protection of health workers and care home residents. We need to know the truth as soon as it’s feasible, and it’s already obvious that some figures in government are a liability to public health (and, I need hardly add, the education system).

The FOI Act will be a vital tool in that process. Among other things, I’m certain that the researches of journalists will confirm – contrary to the fantastical notions of conspiracy theorists who regard the pandemic as a ruse to expand world control on behalf of Bill Gates and Big Pharma – that the Government has really had little idea what it’s doing. The Act needs to have teeth, and the government needs to stop neutering it.

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Oliver Kamm is a columnist and leader writer for The Times.

Columns are the author's own opinion and do not necessarily reflect the views of CapX.