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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Reader Comments (rss)

(Flattened / Threaded)

  1. icon
    That One Guy (profile), Jan 6th, 2016 @ 5:28am

    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.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  2. icon
    rw (profile), Jan 6th, 2016 @ 6:24am

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

    They have to stay employed somehow...and this type of public dole is much more profitable than that for ordinary folk.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  3. identicon
    Anonymous Coward, Jan 6th, 2016 @ 7:05am

    From the Government

    The Freedom of Information act was only intended to create the illusion that we can be held to account by the citizens of our country. These dammed journalists are ruining that illusion by asking for infomation.

    /s

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  4. identicon
    Anonymous Coward, Jan 6th, 2016 @ 7:24am

    Re: From the Government

    The Obama administration has been the most open administration ever. Just ask them. It just all the traitorous terrorists from the pestering press and those bombastic bloggers that keep asking for information that are making them look bad.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  5. identicon
    Anonymous Anonymous Coward, Jan 6th, 2016 @ 7:39am

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

    Don't forget that they don't pollute by publicizing their accomplishments. Go Green!

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  6. identicon
    Pixelation, Jan 6th, 2016 @ 8:00am

    The next request...

    Should also include asking how much they are making per meeting.
    Follow the money.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  7. icon
    Ninja (profile), Jan 6th, 2016 @ 8:08am

    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.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  8. icon
    JustMe (profile), Jan 6th, 2016 @ 8:11am

    Re: A/C's Obama comment

    Are you trolling, are you randomly throwing in anti-Obama comments, or are you honestly confused? Nothing what you said makes sense when replying to this article.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  9. icon
    wereisjessicahyde (profile), Jan 6th, 2016 @ 8:13am

    I blame the mice

    I wish it had been 42.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  10. identicon
    Anonymous Coward, Jan 6th, 2016 @ 8:15am

    "artful alliterations"

    Indeed!

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  11. identicon
    Anonymous Coward, Jan 6th, 2016 @ 8:30am

    Re: 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.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  12. identicon
    Jigsy, Jan 6th, 2016 @ 8:58am

    Whoa, wait a fucking second... there's a number *13*!?

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  13. identicon
    Anonymous Coward, Jan 6th, 2016 @ 10:01am

    accountability is terrorism apparently to rogue governments

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  14. identicon
    Anonymous Coward, Jan 6th, 2016 @ 10:02am

    ... 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?

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  15. identicon
    Anonymous Hero, Jan 6th, 2016 @ 10:14am

    It's telling

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

    It's very telling of the government if it refers to the public, which it should be serving, as pollution, waste, garbage, disgusting filthy toxic beings.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  16. identicon
    Anonymous Coward, Jan 6th, 2016 @ 10:40am

    Re: Re: Re: A/C's Obama comment

    And don't forget the opportunity to put in some alliterations.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  17. identicon
    Whoever, Jan 6th, 2016 @ 11:25am

    Spycatcher?

    This was the same country that was prepared to send someone around the world to lie to a court (or, as admitted, to be "economical with the truth") in order to prevent publication of a badly written book that was available in many countries already.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  18. icon
    tqk (profile), Jan 6th, 2016 @ 1:53pm

    Re: It's telling

    It's very telling of the government if it refers to the public, which it should be serving, as pollution, waste, garbage, disgusting filthy toxic beings.

    No, no, no. This is Britain. They couldn't care less about the public. The "disgusting filthy toxic beings" he was referring to were British news outlets, deservedly so.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  19. identicon
    Anonymous Coward, Jan 6th, 2016 @ 2:03pm

    Re:

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

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  20. identicon
    Anonymous Coward, Jan 6th, 2016 @ 3:11pm

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

    Really, no management along the way stopped the crazy train of fighting this in court?

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  21. identicon
    Anonymous Coward, Jan 6th, 2016 @ 3:13pm

    Re: Re: From the Government

    Damn Obama for keeping those Brits from responding to FOI requests!

    Does his power have no bounds?

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  22. identicon
    Padremellyrn, Jan 6th, 2016 @ 5:08pm

    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.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  23. icon
    tqk (profile), Jan 6th, 2016 @ 6:17pm

    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!

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  24. icon
    MrTroy (profile), Jan 6th, 2016 @ 7:29pm

    Re: Re: Re: From the Government

    Britain, Britain... oh yeah, that's the state just east of New York, right?

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  25. identicon
    Socrates, Jan 7th, 2016 @ 3:00am

    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 falkvinge.net

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  26. identicon
    Anonymous Coward, Jan 7th, 2016 @ 5:13am

    Re:

    Yes, and that is exactly the reason why Dave is trying to rescind this law.

    All politicians hold FOIA in contempt, they much preferred it when the could behave badly with no consequences.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  27. icon
    Almost Anonymous (profile), Jan 7th, 2016 @ 8:56am

    Re:

    But, assuming he eventually wins the right to see the legal fees figure, will that figure also include the legal fees for fighting the request to see the initial legal fees?

    Also, legal fees.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  28. icon
    klaus (profile), Jan 8th, 2016 @ 1:44am

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

    Exactly so. Ordinary folk pay taxes, entitled folk take benefits. Eadie is a scrounger in an expensive suit.

    http://www.theguardian.com/law/2013/oct/23/two-lawyers-3m-fees-government

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  29. icon
    trollificus (profile), Jan 28th, 2016 @ 9:53am

    Re: Re: Re: From the Government

    Haha.

    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.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]


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