Free access to government information plunges to record lows under Boris Johnson

Labour brands failure to answer on time ‘deeply troubling’

Jon Stone
Policy Correspondent
Friday 25 September 2020 23:37 BST
Whitehall, the home of the UK's civil service
Whitehall, the home of the UK's civil service

Free access to government information has plunged to record levels under Boris Johnson's premiership, official figures show.

Civil servants in the orbit of Downing Street are increasingly failing to respond to freedom of information requests in line with their obligations – with the Cabinet Office the worst performing.

The Cabinet Office now answers just 64 per cent of freedom of information requests on time, down from 85 per cent in 2019. As recently as 2017 it was answering 95 per cent of requests.

Other ministries such as the Department of Health and Social Care and Department for Transport have also seen performance dip in 2020, with figures relating to financial years.

The Freedom of Information Act was introduced by the last Labour government in 2000 and gives members of the public the right to access government information, with various exceptions to protect personal data and ministerial decision-making.

Civil servants are legally supposed to respond to requests for information within 20 working days, but there is no serious penalty for failing to do so.

After leaving office Tony Blair said the act was his worst mistake in office, but campaigners and journalists have used it to hold the government to account.

In August Boris Johnson moved controversial advisor Dominic Cummings and the policy unit into the Cabinet Office. Mr Cummings plans to reform the civil service.

The failures around open government also come as ministers increasingly fail to respond to written questions from MPs on time. Lists of unanswered questions on the parliament website have become so long that members sometimes have to wait several months for a response from a minister - by which time the issue has moved on.

Cat Smith, Labour’s Shadow Minister for Voter Engagement, said: “With access to Government information hitting a record low at the height of the coronavirus pandemic, people will rightly wonder what Boris Johnson has got to hide.

“It is deeply troubling that the Cabinet Office, the department responsible for Government transparency and now run by the Prime Minister’s most trusted adviser, is the worst offender.

"Instead of facing up to their responsibilities, the Conservatives under Boris Johnson are trying to hide from scrutiny.”

Commenting on the figures, Maurice Frankel, director of the Campaign for Freedom of Information, told The Independent: "Record breaking delays during this period are not surprising as it covers the height of the pandemic when many FOI staff were working from home with limited access to their records.

"The Cabinet Office’s figure of only 64 per cent of requests answered on time in April-June 2020 is poor, but not unique. The FCO answered only 65 per cent on time during the period and the DWP only 55 per cent.

"But the Cabinet Office figure for the same quarter in 2019 was significantly worse than all these departments, with no pandemic to blame.

"And in the 8 months to January 2020 the Information Commissioner's Office issued no less than 12 legally binding notices ordering the Cabinet Office to reply to the ICO's own questions or face contempt of court action. The ICO’s queries had been ignored for months.

"The Cabinet Office has been increasingly willing to put up two fingers to the FOI Act and the Information Commissioner - an unacceptable position for any government department but shocking from the department in charge of FOI.”

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