Avoiding answering Freedom of Information requests has become a “political strategy in its own right” according to a Conservative MP who backed calls for the act to be strengthened and upheld more aggressively.
David Davis, who has frequently spoken out on press freedom issues, called for a presumption of disclosure – a concept seconded by National Union of Journalists general secretary Michelle Stanistreet – and said the “pernicious” exemption for commercially sensitive information should be abolished.
He also called for the closure of the Cabinet Office’s FoI Clearing House, which has been accused of “blacklisting” journalists and screening their Freedom of Information requests, and said campaigners need to be “very resistant” to government attempts to close down FoI.
“And if I had my way I’d actually create a government unit reporting to a select committee whose duty and absolute access is to provide information which they think should be in the public domain,” Davis said.
“If we started with a few things we might actually deliver on David [Clark]’s marvellous promise from 15 years ago.”
Davis joined pro-FoI speakers at a panel hosted by Open Democracy which heard calls for the act to be strengthened.
It came in a week when Bristol City Council admitted it had a “systemic, long-standing issue” of not replying to FoI requests within the time limit of 20 working days, and FT chief political correspondent Jim Pickard criticised the “ease with which officials stonewall even straightforward FOI requests” after trying to obtain David Cameron’s Greensill lobbying messages.
FoI is a ‘lonely and frustrating’ process
Open Democracy journalist Jenna Corderoy, who has been forced to appeal FoI refusals to tribunal on multiple occasions, with another next week, said it has become “tougher to tease out information”.
“You’re looking at years essentially to get the information that you want, and it can be a very lonely and frustrating experience.
“That’s not an effective system and it’s not working, particularly with central government departments.”
Corderoy noted there have been repeated calls over many years to extend the FoI Act to cover private contractors providing public services, and said a “significant amount of pressure” is now needed.
Lord David Clark, the former Labour minister who played a central part in creating FoI, said he hears almost daily from people that public bodies have become confident enough to deny they are even subject to the act and, if pressed further, claim they are too busy and cannot meet the deadline of 20 working days.
“I’m afraid that we can save the day but it’s going to mean a lot of us working very hard over the months and years ahead to get back even where we were ten years ago – let alone to where we want to go,” he said.
FoI legislation ‘back to square one’
John McDonnell, former shadow chancellor, warned that FoI legislation has become weakened not only by exemptions “but also the erosion of even the operation of that weakened legislation. I think we’re in real danger of the water closing over that legislation if we’re not careful,” he said.
McDonnell added that obfuscation to FoI requests “has become an art form in Government… to avoid telling the truth”.
“We now have to recognise how dangerous a situation we’re now in.” He said the legislation is “back to square one, where people are being forced into judicial review systems all over again”.
McDonnell called for adequate resource to be given to the ICO, which has been “rendered in many people’s eyes ineffective,” he said. Stanistreet agreed it had been “pretty much hollowed out”.
The regulator’s lack of resources was a “political decision based upon this culture of secrecy because people in government are willing to use every mechanism they possibly can to avoid accountability,” McDonnell claimed.
The ICO said at the start of the Covid-19 pandemic it would not penalise authorities for missing FoI deadlines while the crisis was ongoing. In October it said it would “consider unpausing formal monitoring and regulatory action that was in train before the pandemic”.
‘Worst of all worlds’
Labour MP McDonnell also wants to see more resources given to other bodies that can hold the Government to account, for example, select committees like the Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee which is to look at civil service rules following the David Cameron lobbying row.
“Let’s use this opportunity at these various inquiries to put Freedom of Information back solidly on the agenda, otherwise… we will never be able to hold politicians to account and we will never be able to effectively expose bad behaviour sleaze and illegal acts and eventually it will lead to the erosion of our democracy, which we all hold dear,” McDonnell said.
He added that the situation is now a “maelstrom” and “worst of all worlds” due to the combination of a “culture of secrecy in government whilst, at the same time, there’s been a decline in the number of journalists able to investigate these matters”.
NUJ general secretary Michelle Stanistreet called for “more robust measures and greater sanctions to properly deter those who indulge in repeated non-compliance and deliberate avoidance of dishonesty and poor record keeping”.
Stanistreet said there were many stories that “simply wouldn’t see the light of day without journalistic deployment of FoI”, giving the example of Portsmouth News reporting the number of local patients discharged from hospital into care homes at the peak of the Covid-19 pandemic.
“Journalists continue to face barriers and challenges in their pursuit of accessing this kind of information that leads to those kinds of stories and we see that as very much part of an increasing pattern of behaviour on the part of government and public bodies,” she said.
“Journalists making applications are routinely given the runaround, their efforts to report and to secure transparency are stymied and thwarted,” she added, praising the “sheer doggedness” of many “which is often what it takes to get information that should have been handed over up front”.