UK Government urged to end secrecy and respect freedom of information 7

UK Government urged to end secrecy and respect freedom of information

More than 100 journalists, politicians, celebrities and campaigners are among the signatories of an open letter calling for the UK Government to stop breaching freedom of information (FoI) legislation.

The letter – coordinated by openDemocracy – calls on the UK’s information commissioner, John Edwards, to improve investigations into FoI breaches and to stop government secrecy. 

The letter comes amid growing concern about the state of freedom of information in Britain. It has been signed by – among others – The Ferret, Guardian editor Katharine Viner, Observer editor Paul Webster, Tory MP David Davis, the Green Party’s Caroline Lucas and shadow solicitor general, Andy Slaughter.

2020 was the worst year on record for freedom of information in the UK, with just 41 per cent of requests made to central government granted in full.

In 2021 a British judge criticised the Cabinet Office for its “profound lack of transparency” after openDemocracy exposed the existence of an FoI ‘clearing house’ in government, which was coordinating responses to requests from journalists and others. A parliamentary inquiry was launched in July 2021 and is ongoing. 

The open letter is addressed to Edwards, who became the information commissioner in January 2022. It says the “current regulatory approach to FoI is clearly not working” and urges Edwards to do more to keep the government accountable.

“The accountability that FoI provides is in real danger of disappearing, which poses a threat to the long-term national interest of this country. It is time for fresh thinking and bold action to deliver FoI transparency in the public interest,” the letter says, urging the Information Commissioner’s Office to allocate more resources to investigating complaints about FoI. 

It also calls for clear protocols to be introduced to deal with authorities that have systemic patterns of poor transparency.

When the government fails to meet its transparency commitments, it is essential that the ICO is able to step in to make sure ministers and public bodies comply with the law.a

Nik Williams, a director at The Ferret, said: “Without a modern, transparent, and effective FoI regime, too many new stories that have emboldened public knowledge and engagement would have been unreported. This absence of public interest reporting would hollow out the civic space upon which UK democracy needs to thrive.”

He added: “With a new FoI commissioner we have an opportunity to turn the page and make the necessary changes to ensure that the public bodies that govern our everyday lives are open to scrutiny and democratic accountability. As an investigative journalism cooperative, The Ferret’s work is underpinned by the ability to request and access information to support our readers, members and the wider community.”

Peter Geoghegan, editor-in-chief of openDemocracy, said that as the British public is still being “kept in the dark over partygate”, the importance of transparency has “rarely been more obvious”.

“At openDemocracy, we are constantly encountering public bodies and government departments which stonewall, delay and dodge freedom of information requests,” he added. “As you can see from the huge range of signatories to the open letter, we are far from alone in having serious concerns about transparency. 

“FoI is a key tool for holding public bodies to account but currently the Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) is not ensuring that the Freedom of Information Act delivers. We welcome the new information commissioner’s listening exercise and are keen to share our views on how FOI can be better policed.”

Katharine Viner, editor-in-chief at The Guardian said journalism in the public interest often depends on freedom of information laws, which help the public understand decisions made by the authorities. 

“Such laws are essential to a well-functioning democracy,” she added. “When the government fails to meet its transparency commitments, it is essential that the ICO is able to step in to make sure ministers and public bodies comply with the law.”

Michelle Stanistreet, general secretary at the National Union of Journalists, said the system is “broken” and the law needs to be broadened out to include private companies running public services. 

She added: “The present delays in the FoI system can kill a time-sensitive story stone dead. It can take up to 18 months – or years especially if appeals are involved – to get full replies. This isn’t good enough. Journalists report that government departments can be obstructive and hide behind a culture of secrecy. 

Information Commissioner John Edwards said: “We acknowledge the concerns expressed in this letter. FOI plays an important part in civic engagement and holding public services to account, and we share the desire to see the law work effectively.

“The ICO’s role is to administer the law, and we always want to hear views that help us to understand where our role can be improved. I recognise the concern around timely access to information, and addressing this is a priority.

“We all benefit from a modern law, and I think there are suggestions in this letter that warrant further consideration. My office will be part of those discussions, though decisions about law reform are for ministers and parliament to make.”

A Cabinet Office spokesperson, said: “This government remains fully committed to its transparency agenda, routinely disclosing information beyond its obligations under the FOI Act, and releasing more proactive publications than ever before.”

He added that the Clearing House had existed since 2004, and was intended to ensure “a consistent approach to dealing with FOIs across government” and that “requests for particularly sensitive information are handled appropriately”.

The full text of the open letter and list of signatories can be found here.

Photo Credit: iStock/Sitthiphong

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