Whitehall and the public would benefit from greater transparencyby Gavin Freeguard / February 12, 2020 / Leave a comment
They say sunlight is the best disinfectant, but clouds have been gathering over Whitehall for the last few years. Government departments are granting a lower proportion of freedom of information (FoI) requests in full now compared to 2010, let alone 2005, when the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) came into operation.
2020 marks not only the 15th anniversary of the Act—which allows citizens to request information from the government and expect a response within 20 working days—coming into effect, but the 20th anniversary of it becoming law. It was designed, in the words of then home secretary Jack Straw, to “transform the culture of government from one of secrecy to one of openness” since “unnecessary secrecy in government leads to arrogance in governance and defective decision-making.” Through granting citizens the right to know, freedom of information should also promote better government.
But the latest figures point more in the direction of unnecessary secrecy than a culture of openness. In the third quarter of 2010, 15 government departments granted more than half the requests they received in full. In the third quarter of 2019, only five did. In 2010, government departments withheld information in part or in full in response to just under 40 per cent of requests; in 2019, that figure is closer to 60 per cent. What is going on?
In some circumstances there may be good reasons for departments not to grant requests. They can refuse to release information on cost grounds (if it would cost more than £600 to answer), if the requests are “vexatious,” or using any of the 23 exemptions available under the Act.
Some departments withhold more than others. The Foreign Office, Ministry of Justice (MoJ) and Cabinet Office have refused more than half of their requests in every quarter since 2010. The three departments created in July 2016—the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS), Department for International Trade (DIT) and now-defunct Department for Exiting the European Union (DExEU) have all refused more than half of the requests they have received in every quarter of their existence.
This will be partly due to the nature of information held by these departments: the “international relations” exemption is sometimes deployed by the Foreign Office, DIT…