UK Government Spends Three Years And Large Sums Of Money To Avoid Revealing The Number '13'

from the pollutant-of-publicity dept

As we pointed out last month, the UK government is hoping to hamstring the country’s Freedom of Information laws to make it much harder to dig out facts and thus hold politicians to account. In the meantime, it is going to absurd lengths in order to avoid responding to even the most harmless of requests, as this story from the BBC’s Social Affairs Correspondent, Michael Buchanan, makes plain. Here’s the background:

Back in 2010, the [UK’s] coalition government were trumpeting a new red tape-busting cabinet panel, the Reducing Regulation Committee. I suspected that it was all froth and no action, so in 2012 I asked how often they had met since the committee’s creation.

Nothing very threatening there, you might think, but the UK government refused on the basis that disclosing this magic number would “impinge on cabinet collective decision-making”. So Buchanan appealed — first, to the Cabinet Office, the department he had made the request to, where he was turned down, and then to the UK Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO), which oversees this whole area of government transparency. Here’s what happened:

Merry hell ensued. The ICO found in my favour, the Cabinet Office appealed, lost, appealed again, won, the ICO appealed for me, won, etc. Back and forth it went for three years. At one point, the government called in the fearsome-sounding “Treasury Devil”, the so-called Star of the Bar, James Eadie QC [Queen’s Counsel], to argue their case.

The “Treasury Devil” may or may not be fearsome-sounding, but he is certainly fearsomely expensive — think top-class corporate lawyer expensive. In other words, the UK government was willing to spend many, many thousands of pounds of taxpayers’ money in order to keep the number of meetings of an obscure committee secret.

An earlier post by Buchanan reveals one of Eadie’s devilish attempts to fend off the FOI request. The government’s lawyer argued that:

publicly revealing how often a cabinet committee meets would harm the workings of government by introducing the “pollutant of publicity”.

But in the end, the UK’s Information Rights Tribunal was undaunted by the Treasury Devil and his artful alliterations, and it rejected the government’s final appeal, going so far as to issue:

a strongly worded judgment which described the Cabinet Office’s approach as “irresponsible”, its key witness as “evasive and disingenuous”, and her evidence as “of no value whatsoever”.

And so, a mere three years and five months after he submitted his FOI request, Buchanan could finally write:

I’m now in a position to exclusively reveal to you, dear reader, that between 2010 and 2012, the Reducing Regulation Committee met on a total of 13 occasions.

And he adds:

Ministers are currently pondering whether to put restrictions on the Freedom of Information Act. In the meantime, how much it cost in legal fees to refuse my request for three years will be the subject of my next FOI request.

Well played, sir.

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Comments on “UK Government Spends Three Years And Large Sums Of Money To Avoid Revealing The Number '13'”

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That One Guy (profile) says:

Ask for one thing, learn another thing (not) free!

So after three years he learned not only that the apparently much lauded ‘Reducing Regulation Committee’ is all smoke and no fire, all word and no action, but that those involved are so laughably pathetic that the idea that anyone would learn just how useless and lazy they are is something that must be defended at all costs.

trollificus (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re: From the Government


Or are you really confused when someone finds it interesting that governments of both proud democracies are comparable in their total lack of commitment to honesty and transparency?? (their clear statements to the contrary notwithstanding)

I don’t think it’s inappropriate to note, in the context of this story, how Obama’s promise to have “the most transparent administration in history” is possibly the farthest-from-honored campaign promise made in my long lifetime.

OTOH, to misrepresent the comment as somehow blaming Obama for the UK govs’ actions…that’s either the weakest defence of Obama’s record ever, or just stupid.

Ninja (profile) says:

In the meantime, how much it cost in legal fees to refuse my request for three years will be the subject of my next FOI request.

The British are classy indeed! We proposed to duct tape the fully redacted pages and fax them back to the US Govt but this gentleman leveled up the play, now he will ‘duct tape’ different FOI requests in an infinite loop.

Well played indeed.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: A/C's Obama comment

It is a /s comment that is showing the parallels of US and UK government. Techdirt has reported many times on the “transparency” Obama has created. The US tries to suppress FOIA request just as the UK is doing. Wasting millions of dollar in the process. Obama claimed that his presidency was going to be the most transparent in history but the number FOIA requests that are suppressed say otherwise.

Padremellyrn (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:

My building goes from floor 12 to 14. Will they also reveal where the number 13 resides?

Snark That’s confidential, it would cause the builder to be subjected to the pollution of the Public to reveal that in fact, many buildings don’t have a 13th floor due to superstition. What are you, some kind of Communist? Why do you hate American Freedom of Information so much. /snark

According to one of the poster I know at the Bboard, the British have a bad habit of being as nummy as the Americans. This only proves it.

Socrates says:

Re: The quote

Marielle Gallo – a Member of the European Parliament, no less – calls the anti-ACTA campaigns “A soft form of terrorism” (une forme douce de terrorisme). Yes, she really does say that the citizens of Europe, her constituency, who contact her colleagues in Parliament regarding a concerning political matter should be regarded as terrorists.

An article about Marielle Gallo at

Anonymous Coward says:

… publicly revealing how often a cabinet committee meets would harm the workings of government by introducing the “pollutant of publicity”.

Alliteration aside, did he just say that in general, one of the things that should be exempt from freedom of information requests about the government is information about the government?

tqk (profile) says:

Re: Re:

In any sane organization, wasting that sort of money and resources on something so trivial would result in the immediate firings of senior management.

Any sane organization would wonder what’s wrong with telling the truth. “Thirteen.” End of story. “Why didn’t you have more?” “That’d be more expensive, for one thing, and each meeting was already sufficiently productive.” Again, end of story.

This being the British gov’t (I suppose it could have been any gov’t, however; they’re all pretty thin skinned these days), they immediately went into “offended by the effrontery” mode for those peasants questioning their actions, how dare they?!? Bloody riff-raff! Up with this, we will not put!

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