From scientific advice and procurement contracts to Freedom of Information requests, our government has drastically reduced transparency during the COVID-19 pandemic. That’s a real threat to our democracy. Scottish public authorities can now take 100 days to answer FoIs! English public authorities may take 60 days!
Greg Clark is not known as a thorn in his government’s side. The Conservative MP for Tunbridge Wells has held numerous cabinet roles in his fifteen years in the Commons.
But Clark was particularly critical of one aspect of the British government’s COVID-19 response in particular: transparency. Or rather the lack of it. There have, he told Boris Johnson “been a number of concerns over the transparency of the scientific advice given and its relationship to government decisions”.
Clark recommended that Johnson “increase transparency” of the government’s coronavirus response. But the prospect of some sunlight in the corridors of power looks slight. Indeed, time and again, Westminster and Holyrood have gone out of their way to stymie attempts to hold government to account in recent months.
Governments across the UK have repeatedly tried to evade transparency, from curtailing Freedom of Information legislation to refusing to publish details of multi-million pound COVID contracts given out without normal tendering processes. Governments have yet to release details of the location of care home deaths or scientific papers.
The public have a right to know how the government reached conclusions on its pandemic response, and how and where their money is being spent in the efforts to procure personal protective equipment and increase testing capacity. Without this information, citizens are losing a fundamental right to transparency. That’s a threat to good government and democracy.
OpenDemocracy is working hard to hold the government to account. “We have been forced to threaten legal action to force it to publish details of its ‘unprecedented’ transfer of NHS data to tech giants. But our task is made even harder when our journalists are banned from asking questions at daily COVID-19 briefings.
Some public authorities have taken the opportunity to suspend rights to information all together. The London Borough of Redbridge said it “will be suspending work on all Freedom of Information requests during this time”. Greater Manchester Police has done likewise, even vaingloriously thanking “the support of the media in keeping the backlog of requests to a minimum by ceasing new requests during this time.” The Police Service Northern Ireland asked people to withdraw FOI requests.
Public authorities appear to have government support for this Freedom of Information rollback. In mid-March, Robert Jenrick, secretary for housing, communities and local government, tweeted that “tasks like [Freedom of Information] requests will be cut or deferred” (which is slightly different to the government press release he linked to, which says “Councils will be able to use their discretion on deadlines for Freedom of Information requests”).
In Scotland, it’s even more worrying. In April, the Scottish National Party-led parliament in Edinburgh passed a bill that allowed Scottish public authorities to take as much as five times the standard 20 days to respond to Freedom of Information requests. Earlier this week, the Scottish government was forced to withdraw all the emergency Freedom of Information relaxations following opposition from parliamentarians.
Of course, these are tumultuous times, and it is understandable that government and public authorities may take longer than usual in responding to requests for information – that is reasonable. What is not reasonable, however, is when authorities essentially remove the public’s right to information.
As for the Information Commissioner’s Office, it is taking an “empathetic and pragmatic approach” to regulating access to information. But it still calls for public authorities to recognise transparency and seek as far as possible to continue to comply with their obligations.
The coronavirus may have an impact on how the Information Commissioner’s Office deals with complaints about accessing information from public authorities, creating more of a backlog. In normal circumstances, the commission can often take up to six months to process a complaint, which can be frustrating enough, especially if the complaint relates to information that is of high public interest.
And we will have to brace ourselves for further frustration as the months roll by, while “the Commissioner has therefore taken the decision to amend her casework approaches to reduce the burden on public authorities in these unprecedented times”, according to one piece of communication openDemocracy received from the information commission. And we may experience further delays when taking complaints before a judge.
In the midst of a pandemic, delays in processing public records requests and even incomplete responses are to be expected – but at a time of national crisis, being able to scrutinise those in power is even more important.
Crucial decisions are being taken every day. Millions of pounds of public money is being spent, often with very limited oversight. To wait a couple of months for a response to a request that is very much in the public interest fundamentally undermines the right to know.