Three of the government departments with the biggest role in the UK’s decision to leave the European Union have come under fire for their record in answering Freedom of Information Act requests.
A crunch of the latest quarterly statistics on Whitehall’s handling of requests for data under the act has found that the Department for Exiting the European Union and the Cabinet Office – which is upping its involvement in the Brexit process – had particularly poor response rates.
Separately, the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs has been criticised for not releasing a report featuring projections on the effect of Brexit on food prices.
Statistics published last week revealed that DExEU had answered just 15% of the FoI requests it received in the April-June quarter in full – a lower rate than any other department. Sixty-eight percent of requests were denied a response, while the remaining 17% were either answered in part or were still being processed.
The Cabinet Office had the second-lowest full-disclosure rate, with just 17% of requests answered in their entirety, and 69% declined in full. Defra had a full-disclosure rate of 39%, while 32% of requests for information were declined in full.
The figures contrast with the Office of the Secretary of State for Wales, which gave full answers to 90% of the FoI requests it received; the Department for Transport which had a 65% full-disclosure rate; and the Department for Education which had a rate of 32%.
Institute for Government researcher Aaron Cheung said it was “ironic” that the Cabinet Office, which is responsible for FoI policy, had one of the poorest disclosure rates for transparency requests. He added that its low ranking – along with DExEU – indicated a difficulty faced by the public in obtaining information.
“Both DExEU and Cabinet Office play an important role in coordinating government, and Cabinet Office has been elevated to play a greater role in Brexit negotiations with the move of Olly Robbins from DExEU to head negotiations as the prime minister’s adviser,” he said.
“The lack of transparency in both departments suggests that the public cannot get hold of information about some of the most important activity in government at the moment.”
Cheung said that, since 2010, the Cabinet Office had been the department that granted the lowest proportion of FoI requests and was also the department most likely to see its decisions appealed.
“Even given this fact, in the last quarter there has been a notable drop in requests being granted, from 27% to 17%,” he said.
CSW asked the Cabinet Office for its response to the IfG’s observations on its performance.
A spokeswoman said the government was committed to freedom of information and was publishing more data than ever before.
“With increasing transparency, the requests we receive under [the] Freedom of Information [Act] ask for more and more complex information,” she said.
“We must balance the public need to make information available and protect sensitive information to ensure national security.”
The trade union Unite has revealed it had asked Defra for a report containing post-Brexit food price projections, which the department had declined to prove. The union said it intended to appeal the department’s refusal.
Julia Long, the union’s national officer for food, drink and agriculture, said Michael Gove's department was “pulling the wool over the eyes of the public” with its lack of transparency.
“If the government knows that Brexit is going to affect food prices, then it needs to tell the general public and not pretend that there isn’t a problem,” she said.
“The type of Brexit that the UK chooses will clearly have major implications on the nations shopping basket and we need to know what those factors will be.
“Unite will do everything it can to ensure that this report is published and will hope that other individuals and organisations with similar concerns will also apply pressure for this information to see the light of day.”
Government departments and other public bodies can employ a number of exemptions that relieve them of the obligation to answer FoI requests in part or in full.
The most commonly is that the request involves personal information, but responses can be withheld because the cost involved in answering them would be excessive, or because the information required can be found elsewhere.
Unite said that Defra had cited the Freedom of Information Act's Section 35 exemption as its reason for not answering the food prices request, which covers information related to the formulation and development of government policy.
The Defra response to Unite said that although there was public interest in the disclosure of information related to food prices in the run up to Brexit, there was a “strong public interest” in withholding the information.
“At this early stage of the policy process, where the UK is formulating its negotiating position with the EU, a public authority needs a safe space to formulate policy effectively and to ensure the information it is preparing is timely and accurate,” it said.
“Defra’s EU exit policy development work is ongoing. We consider that premature disclosure of information could seriously mislead the public and is not in the public interest. In the meantime, however, Defra will continue to monitor food prices.
“Therefore, we have concluded that, in all the circumstances of the case, the information should be withheld.”