EXCL Ministers accused of 'keeping public in the dark' amid record Freedom of Information rejections

Posted On: 
1st May 2019

Ministers have been accused of "keeping the public in the dark" as the number of Freedom of Information requests rejected by Whitehall departments hit a record high.

Requests to government departments have nearly doubled since the law kicked in 14 years ago
Credit: 
PA Images

Official new figures show that 41% of all resolvable requests received by Government departments last year were withheld in full - a 20% rise since the transparency law was introduced in 2005.

Just 42% of the 34,452 FOI requests received last year were meanwhile granted in full - compared to 60% in 2005.

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The Act was brought in in 2005 to boost government transparency and allow members of the public to ask for information held by public authorities, ranging from Whitehall departments to the NHS and police forces.

Labour’s Shadow Minister for the Cabinet Office Jon Trickett told PoliticsHome: “These latest figures confirm what we see time and time again: the Conservatives prefer to govern secretively, with decisions made by a small few, resistant to proper accountability.

“Government in the 21st century should be open and responsive to the needs of citizens, not some black box that only a few have access to.

“If elected, Labour will ensure FOI requests are treated with the seriousness they deserve, and we will extend the Freedom of Information Act to cover private companies that run public services.”

The figures show that the Cabinet Office, the Department for Exiting the European Union and the Ministry of Justice topped the list of departments rejecting requests in full last year, turning down 58%, 54% and 53% of all resolvable queries respectively.

The Foreign and Commonwealth Office also ranked at the bottom of the list for departments granting full requests, publishing just 23% of resolvable FOI demands.

Anti-Brexit campaigners were quick to pounce on the rankings for key departments involved in Britain's exit from the European Union.

Labour MP Lloyd Russell-Moyle, speaking for the Best for Britain campaign, told PoliticsHome: “It’s no surprise that the departments most keen to keep the public in the dark are those most heavily involved with Brexit.

“You have to ask yourself why this information is being hidden. The Government is clearly desperate to avoid anyone getting hold of anything to do with its Brexit strategy, because it’s all an embarrassing mess.  

“The lack of transparency over this is very worrying, but unfortunately consistent with the Government’s refusal to allow the public to play any further part in the Brexit process.”

'ABJECT FAILURE'

Liberal Democrat MP Christine Jardine meanwhile told this site: “This abject failure to respond to Freedom of Information requests in full makes me wonder what it is the Tories are trying to hide?

“Too many of this government’s departments are showing a deep disregard for the transparency that is vital to proper public scrutiny. It’s time that changed.”

The Department of Work and Pensions was flooded with the most inquiries at 4,826 last year, followed by the Ministry of Justice receiving 4,645 demands.

The Wales Office, Scotland Office and Attorney General's Office ranked the best for granting requests from members of the public, respectively granting 73%, 63% and 59% of all resolvable requests for information in full.

Responding to the FOI figures, a DEXEU spokesperson said: "The Department was set up to deliver the UK's exit from the EU and our work involves formulating negotiating positions on sensitive and complex areas.

"While we are committed to being as transparent as possible we also have to consider the way any information we release to the public could affect our objectives.

"All FOI requests are dealt with in line with the guidelines set by the Information Commissioner's Office, which is an independent body."       

A Cabinet Office added: "We are committed to transparency and Freedom of Information and this Government is proactively releasing more data than ever before. 

"However, the Cabinet Office holds information relating to some of the most complex and sensitive issues in government. It is right that information is withheld where necessary, for example to protect the interests of national security".

Gavin Freeguard of the Institute for Government think tank pointed out that DEXEU had improved the amount of information it releases and its response times during the last quarter of 2018.

And he said departments had in some cases been battling a higher volume of requests with fewer staff.

“Between 2005 and 2009, departments typically received fewer than 5,000 requests between them per quarter," he said.

“Since 2013, it’s been more like 8,000. 

“We know some departments have fewer staff dealing with FOI than a few years ago, and even where numbers have stayed the same, it might not have kept pace with the rise in numbers.”