Officials may have violated their own laws by retaining information on journalists and activists who sought disclosures under the Freedom of Information Act.
The British government kept a possibly illegal list of people requesting disclosures under the Freedom of Information act (FOI).
A redacted document containing information about journalists and activists who had made applications for information was obtained by journalists for British NGO OpenDemocracy: Jenna Corderoy, Lucas Amin, and Peter Geoghegan.
The outlet described the government unit directing FOI requests, which is run by Cabinet Office Minister Michael Gove, as ‘Orwellian’.
Journalists featured on the list include those working for OpenDemocracy, the BBC, AP, among others. Under British law, data held on individuals must be processed in a transparent manner.
OpenDemocracy explained that requests under the FOI act must be treated as ‘blind’ so as not to prejudice the outcome based on who is filing them.
Government departments receiving FOI requests were instead instructed to pass them along to Gove’s unit, which held the list of names and served as an effective clearing house.
The revelations form just one part of OpenDemocracy’s report into the tactics used by the British government to seemingly not comply with FOI requests.
It found that government departments were ‘cynically’ undermining requests for information, using methods, such as ‘stonewalling’, where requests are effectively ignored, and unreasonably rejecting requests.
The Information Commissioner’s Office, a bureau that is meant to ensure compliance with the FOI act, itself depends on Gove for its budget.
Aimed at increasing accountability and public oversight of government, the FOI act was introduced in 2000 by the Labour government of former Prime Minister Tony Blair.
Typical turnaround for a request for information should take 20 days and need not cite the act itself.
If you want to hold government to account, you need to know what it is doing. Freedom of Information law is one of the few tools we have to find out what govts are doing in our name. But it's under attack. By @PeterKGeoghegan, @JennaCorderoy & Lucas Amin. https://t.co/GJnlMZC8TD— Robert Saunders (@redhistorian) November 24, 2020
Why FOI matters
Since it was introduced, more than 679,000 requests have been filed to more than 24,000 local and central government offices in the UK.
Requests typically relate to government spending, communication between chains of command, and demographic make up of non-elected government bodies, such as data on race, religion, and sex.
Government officials, including Blair himself, have criticised the legislation over purported misuse, with the former Labour leader stating his regret over the ‘imbecility’ of the law.
Media outlets, however, consider it a cornerstone of British democracy citing use of the act to uncover some of the biggest scandals in recent UK political history.
One of the biggest stories to break using the act was the parliamentary expenses scandal of 2009, which found that MPs were getting reimbursements from the taxpayer for items, such as a floating duck pond, a cup of malt drink, a garlic peeling set, a journey of around 300 metres by car, and toilet seats, among many other claims.
Scrutiny of government conduct remains top of the agenda for many journalists and members of the public as anger grows over the way tenders for contracts related to the coronavirus were handed out.
Private firms that have benefited from billions of pounds in commissions related to the pandemic are said to have gotten their hands on the contracts using untowards means, such as apparent personal connections to government officials.