The Information Commissioner has ruled that the UK government must name the MPs that belong to the European Research Group (ERG), which favours a hard Brexit and is led by Jacob-Rees Mogg MP.

ERG is regarded as one of the key players in the current arguments in Westminster over leaving the European Union (EU). But the list of MPs that belong to the group, which is funded by taxpayers, has been kept secret.

ERG’s spokespeople have refused to name its members, or confirm how many supporters it has. In an interview with Channel 4 News in 2017, Tory MP Suella Fernandes said that a list of ERG members was “available if necessary”, but no such list has been published.

Now the UK Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) has ordered the Department for Exiting the European Union (DExEU) to release a list of ERG members. The move comes after the news website, openDemocracy, appealed against a decision by DExEU to redact the names of ERG members in a 2017 email exchange with then Brexit minister, Steve Baker.

Baker, a former ERG chair, became a minister in June 2017. Just weeks later, he offered a private briefing for the ERG on the so-called Great Repeal Bill, the parliamentary act that provides for leaving the EU. One email noted how there is a “larger group” and “a smaller more senior one” within the ERG.

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openDemocracy revealed the existence of Baker’s offer last year. But DExEU redacted the email correspondence so that the ERG members could not be identified.

ICO has rejected DExEU’s claim that releasing the names of ERG members included in Baker’s email would breach data protection laws.

“The names and parliament email addresses of the MPs, MEPs and Lords redacted from the emails disclosed should be provided,” the ICO ruled. The ICO added that ERG members’ names are “constantly placed in the public domain” and “they frequently use publicly accessible Twitter accounts to provide their views”.

The ERG’s ranks have included a number of prominent cabinet ministers such as Michael Gove, Andrea Leadsom and Chris Grayling. Steve Baker has emerged as among the most vocal critic of the prime minister’s Brexit deal since resigning from the government last year over May’s Chequers proposals.

Steve Baker MP

Steve Baker MP

Resisting transparency

Transparency International hailed ICO’s ruling as “very timely given the current political debate” and urged DExEU “to comply as a matter of urgency”.

“The gravity of decisions under ministerial consideration are almost incomparable in living memory. It is therefore of utmost importance that the public are not kept in the dark about how these are made and whose interests are in play. Resisting such transparency only raises the suspicion that there is something to hide,” said Steve Goodrich, senior research officer at Transparency International.

DExEU has a month to release the list of ERG members. The department said: “We are considering the ICO’s decision and will issue our response in due course.”

An extract of the ICO decision notice on the ERG membership

An extract of the ICO decision notice on the ERG membership

Liberal Democrat MP, Tom Brake, accused DExEU of a “shameless attempt” to “shroud in secrecy its meetings with the ERG” and of “a desperate ploy to conceal how a cabal of MPs are puppeteering spineless minister.”

Labour MP, Ben Bradshaw, said that it was “completely unacceptable that we have to rely on the Information Commissioner” to discover the identity of the ERG’s core membership.

“These are the people who are currently holding our country to ransom and working to take us crashing over the Brexit cliff edge in two weeks’ time, yet they refuse to operate transparently and honour the accepted rules of democratic and political behaviour,” Bradshaw said.

The ERG is an influential group composed of backbench Conservative MPs, many of whom have pushed for a no-deal Brexit. The group also has strong connections to pro-Brexit think tanks such as the Institute for Economic Affairs.

openDemocracy has previously revealed how the ERG operates a secret second bank account, despite taking at least a quarter of a million pounds of taxpayers’ money.

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The ERG has also accepted a donation from the Constitutional Research Council – an organisation that channelled a controversial £435,000 donation to the DUP’s Brexit campaign. The organisation is headed by Richard Cook, a former Conservative general election candidate implicated in illegal international waste shipments.

The ERG is classed as a parliamentary research service provider which produces materials for its members. This research is not made public. The Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority (IPSA) reviews the output produced by parliamentary research service providers, including the ERG.

This story was published by openDemocracy on 11 March 2019.

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