Jason Evans was four when his father died of Aids having received a HIV-contaminated blood transfusion from the NHS. This scandal, in which more than 1,000 people died, is the subject of a long-running inquiry. However, Jason, now in his 30s, became tired of waiting and decided to try to get some answers for himself.
In 2018, he submitted a Freedom of Information Act (FoI) request to the Treasury to see if its files could shed any light on what happened. Government departments are supposed to respond to FoI requests within 20 working days yet, for months, there was nothing.
What happened? It turns out the Treasury was willing to give Jason what he was looking for, but then staff from an FoI “clearing house” stepped in. They said the information had to be “managed” and compared the situation to the Chilcot inquiry into the Iraq war. They warned that former ministers “will be very sore” about the disclosures which included a private acknowledgment from then health secretary, Ken Clarke, that some health authorities had been negligent.
This wasn’t an isolated incident. In November, openDemocracy revealed how this secretive clearing house, which operates within Michael Gove’s Cabinet Office, regularly screens hundreds of FoI requests from journalists and campaigners such as Jason and then blocks the release of “sensitive” information. It’s been described as “Orwellian” by the head of the National Union of Journalists. Legal experts say it also breaks the law, which is supposed to treat FoI requests as “applicant blind”.
In a rare show of unity this week, editors from rival newspapers across Fleet Street – including the Guardian and Observer, the Times, Telegraph and Paul Dacre of Associated Newspapers – signed a joint letter to MPs demanding an urgent investigation into the clearing house. They have also called for a number of steps to protect and strengthen FoI laws, which they see as a vital pillar of press freedom.
Without the Freedom of Information Act, the MPs’ expenses scandal would never have come to light and our taxes would still be paying for duck houses and moat cleaning. We’d never have known about the Prince of Wales’s private lobbying or about Britain’s role in Israel’s nuclear weapons programme.
Yet now our fundamental right to access information and scrutinise the workings of government is being fatally undermined. FoI response rates are the lowest since the act came into force 15 years ago, and the regulator has slammed the government for repeated and “unacceptable” failures.
This isn’t just some administrative accident. From ignoring MPs’ parliamentary questions, to the heavy redacting of details of public contracts and the “stonewalling” of reporters, Boris Johnson’s government has used the pandemic as a pretext for secrecy and evasion.
Journalists in our newsroom at openDemocracy have experienced it first-hand. Our political correspondent, James Cusick, has held a parliamentary lobby pass for decades – but was told last year that he’s not permitted to ask questions at the daily Covid press briefings. Why? According No 10, openDemocracy is not a news outlet but a “campaigning” organisation; an epithet also used to smear the Guardian and Mirror when they dared to ask what Dominic Cummings was doing in Barnard Castle.
The censorship watchdog, Reporters without Borders, has criticised the government’s “vindictive” response to media criticism during Covid and warned that press freedom in the UK is being eroded. The promised “reset” with the departure of Cummings and the installation of Allegra Stratton as Downing Street press secretary is yet to materialise. Meanwhile, Michael Gove insisted to MPs in December that the government treats all FoI requests in “exactly the same way … whether or not it’s a freelance journalist, someone working for an established title, or a concerned citizen”.
This is false. When our reporter, Jenna Corderoy, sent a FoI request to the attorney general’s office, staff wrote in internal emails: “Just flagging that Jenna Corderoy is a journalist,” and: “Once the response is confirmed, I’ll just need [redacted] to sign off on this before it goes out, since Jenna Corderoy is a reporter for openDemocracy.”
Other disclosures suggest that many other FoI requests, including those from the Guardian, the Times, the BBC, Privacy International and Big Brother Watch have been treated in similar ways.
Gove’s Cabinet Office claimed in a public statement this week that it is “fully committed” to transparency, denying there is anything “secret” about the clearing house. Why, then, is it paying lawyers to fight an information commissioner’s office ruling, which says it must release details about the operation? Why are there no published guidelines or criteria about when requests should be referred to it, no published statistics on what it reviews? Why does it even exist, when there is no legislation or mandate that stipulates the need for it? And why do reporters such as Corderoy, whose personal details are shared across Whitehall, have to fight long-running legal battles to extract basic information that we are all legally entitled to?
Pressure is mounting. It’s rare for Fleet Street to speak with one voice, and more than 40,000 people have now signed a petition to Gove. Labour is calling for the Freedom of Information Act to be extended to cover public service contracts outsourced to private firms, amid numerous reports of prominent Tory donors being handed lucrative Covid PPE contracts. Senior Conservatives are beginning to demand answers about the clearing house, too.
Freedom of information isn’t a luxury: it’s our right, and its corrosion has profound consequences for us all. Three and a half years after 72 people died in the Grenfell Tower fire, the housing ministry has been telling local councils it is “appropriate” to block FoI requests that would identify buildings that still have Grenfell-style cladding. Meanwhile, for Jason Evans, it’s “intolerable” that so many people, like his father, “have been killed due to Whitehall action – and now we’re having to fight for answers and are being delayed in the process due to Whitehall action”.
“Slowly but surely,” he said, “I believe we are piecing together one of the biggest UK cover-ups to have taken place in a generation.”