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.

Follow me @glynmoody on Twitter or identi.ca, and +glynmoody on Google+


Reader Comments

Subscribe: RSS

View by: Time | Thread


  • icon
    That One Guy (profile), 6 Jan 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 chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 6 Jan 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 chronology ]

    • identicon
      Anonymous Coward, 6 Jan 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 chronology ]

      • identicon
        Anonymous Coward, 6 Jan 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 chronology ]

        • icon
          MrTroy (profile), 6 Jan 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 chronology ]

        • icon
          trollificus (profile), 28 Jan 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 chronology ]

  • identicon
    Pixelation, 6 Jan 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 chronology ]

  • icon
    Ninja (profile), 6 Jan 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 chronology ]

    • icon
      Almost Anonymous (profile), 7 Jan 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 chronology ]

  • icon
    JustMe (profile), 6 Jan 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 chronology ]

    • identicon
      Anonymous Coward, 6 Jan 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 chronology ]

  • icon
    wereisjessicahyde (profile), 6 Jan 2016 @ 8:13am

    I blame the mice

    I wish it had been 42.

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

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 6 Jan 2016 @ 8:15am

    "artful alliterations"

    Indeed!

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

  • identicon
    Jigsy, 6 Jan 2016 @ 8:58am

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

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

    • identicon
      Anonymous Coward, 6 Jan 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 chronology ]

      • identicon
        Padremellyrn, 6 Jan 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 chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 6 Jan 2016 @ 10:01am

    accountability is terrorism apparently to rogue governments

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

    • identicon
      Socrates, 7 Jan 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 chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 6 Jan 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 chronology ]

    • identicon
      Anonymous Coward, 7 Jan 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 chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Hero, 6 Jan 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 chronology ]

    • icon
      tqk (profile), 6 Jan 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 chronology ]

  • identicon
    Whoever, 6 Jan 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 chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 6 Jan 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 chronology ]

    • icon
      tqk (profile), 6 Jan 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 chronology ]


Add Your Comment

Have a Techdirt Account? Sign in now. Want one? Register here
Get Techdirt’s Daily Email
Use markdown for basic formatting. HTML is no longer supported.
  Save me a cookie
Follow Techdirt
Insider Shop - Show Your Support!

Advertisement
Report this ad  |  Hide Techdirt ads
Essential Reading
Techdirt Deals
Report this ad  |  Hide Techdirt ads
Techdirt Insider Chat
Advertisement
Report this ad  |  Hide Techdirt ads
Recent Stories
Advertisement
Report this ad  |  Hide Techdirt ads

Close

Email This

This feature is only available to registered users. Register or sign in to use it.