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.