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Sat 19 October 2019
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Iain Overton explains how the Freedom of Information Act was once a useful tool for journalists to hold power to account. No longer.


It took the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) over a year to refuse my Freedom of Information request. 

Could I have, I asked in July 2018, any FCO briefing notes to ministers, any internal reports or any embassy summaries of the US-Mexican border crisis? It was not an unreasonable request. 

The border crisis was – still is – a topic hotly debated in the national and international press. And the FCO had already been willing to share with me briefing notes on Saudi Arabian human rights abuses, so why not human rights abuses committed by our transatlantic friends?  

The closer you get to questions about Brexit, national security or the actions of its leading politicians, the more you will hit a wall of obfuscation, excuse and unaccountability.

It seems that the FCO, though, found it unreasonable. Every month, I would get a delaying letter saying that it was still reviewing. And then, this month, the letter of rejection. It appears the triumvirate rejection clauses relating to ‘international relations’, ‘formulation of policy’ and ‘personal information’ were to sink my request.


The FCO’s rejection was not unexpected. 

The Freedom of Information Act, introduced by the Blair Government in 2000 which created a public ‘right of access’ to information held by public authorities, is on its back foot.

In 2018, there were 49,961 FOI requests received across all monitored bodies. Of these, just 15,772 were granted in full – less than a third.

The FCO was the worst public body to reply to information requests across government. Just 23% of questions put to it were answered in full. Such opacity was closely followed by the Department for Exiting the European Union, which managed to reply in full to just a quarter.

I was not allowed to know whether Michael Gove had been using his Minister’s phone to call the Daily Telegraph in the week before his ‘friends’ denied he was behind toxic Cabinet leaks.

The Wales Office was far more transparent. It answered 73% of FOIs in full, followed closely by the Scotland Office with 63% of complete responses.

The lack of transparency is getting worse. In 2013, of the 51,696 FOIs put to central government, 20,940 were answered in full – some 40.5%. The FCO fully replied that year to 28% of the 309 requests it received.

But what does this increasing obfuscation mean?


Defying the Public Interest

It is hard to gauge the consequences of a government culture that seems to see the Freedom of Information Act as the enemy, but I have had many recent requests rejected – requests that were deeply in the public interest.

These include wanting to know if the Daily Express front page splash SAS Troops “Posing as Homeless Beggars Across UK Streets” to Foil Attacks was true or not. It was rejected by the Ministry of Defence on the grounds that we cannot know if our special forces are masquerading as the homeless. I did not ask to know where they might be masquerading – just if they were or not. Such a question is unreasonable, the Government believes.

I was also not allowed to know whether Michael Gove had been using his minister’s phone to call the Daily Telegraph in the week before his ‘friends’ denied he was behind toxic Cabinet leaks to that newspaper about Philip Hammond in July 2017.

In 2018, there were 49,961 FOI requests received across all monitored bodies. Of these, just 15,772 were granted in full – less than a third.

I was not allowed to know if Boris Johnson knew about the date of the Heathrow Airport extension vote in Parliament before he agreed to a trip to Afghanistan. It was a trip that meant he did not have to defy the Chief Whip and vote in line with his hollow claim that he’d lie down in front of bulldozers to stop a third runway.

Nor was I allowed to see from the Department for Exiting the EU briefing or advisory notes relating to Britain’s future arms exports in relation to Brexit and our exiting the EU. The reason for this refusal? “There is a strong public interest in policy making associated with our exit from the EU being of the highest quality and being fully informed by a consideration of all options”.

And, after an online conversation with military veteran Col Richard Kemp – in which he claimed he was engaged in fire incidents that resulted in civilian deaths and that he ‘smelt and caused’ their burning flesh following these incidents – I asked the Ministry of Defence for data on civilian casualties in Afghanistan during Col Kemp’s service. I was told that “the MOD does not collate, publish or hold figures on civilian casualties”.

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In short, hard questions are increasingly being avoided by this Government and, the closer you get to questions about Brexit, national security or the actions of its leading politicians, the more you will hit a wall of obfuscation, excuse and unaccountability.  But, in a political age defined by false promises, fake facts, dark money and populist nationalism, hard questions are most conveniently unanswered.

In 2015, a new commission, set up by the Government to examine the case for restrictions to the Freedom of Information Act, concluded that the right to know was under major attack. It seems, almost five years later, that the right to know is the last thing this Government wants its people having.

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