Freedom of information and scrutiny of government decisions are under attack. Through obstruction and neglect, ministers and civil servants are choking off our right to know what they are doing and how they spend our money.
Meanwhile Boris Johnson and his cabinet are replacing rigorous journalistic questioning with shallow social media stunts, creating a mirage of openness and accountability while hiding away from any real interrogation.
The Freedom of Information Act 2000 gave UK citizens the right to request data from public authorities, and obliged them to publish financial and other routine reports. It transformed the relationship between the public and the state, with campaigners and journalists soon pushing its boundaries.
Since 2005 the number of Freedom of Information (FoI) requests to government has doubled but, as the Institute for Government revealed this week in its Whitehall Monitor 2020 report, adherence to the act is on the verge of collapse, with departments ignoring their legal duties to supply information.
The report points out that in the early years of the act, departments were routinely approving more than half of FoI requests (although the Foreign Office and Cabinet Office have almost always refused 60% or more).
But since 2010 – when the coalition government came in – the culture in Whitehall began to change, with departments such as the Treasury, HMRC, Home Office, justice, health, communities, culture and environment becoming increasingly bold in refusing requests for information.
As well as responding to FoI requests, departments are required to publish regular summaries of their staff posts, spending of more than £25,000 and ministerial hospitality. The health and environment departments haven’t published their staff posts for more than three years, while the Ministry of Justice, Home Office, Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government and the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy haven’t bothered to publish their spending in months.
FoI in Whitehall is unravelling because nobody at the centre of government is bothering to enforce compliance with either the letter or spirit of the law. In the face of a prevailing attitude that it is better to obfuscate, mislead and cover up than to come clean, the feeble enforcement powers granted to the information commissioner hold few fears for ministers compared with the power of the media.
Against this backdrop of a growing reassertion of secrecy, Johnson’s government is making coordinated moves to undermine accountability via the media. The decision – made without consultation – to move the location of the parliamentary lobby briefings from the House of Commons to Downing Street threatens to impede access and restrict the use of mobile phones, while the boycott of Radio 4’s Today programme is a blatant and cowardly attempt to avoid difficult questions.
But at least we now have The People’s PMQs, a rambling, disjointed 15-minute monologue from the prime minister responding to questions from the public on everything from fishing rights to his choice of shampoo, livestreamed on Facebook.
Taken together, these moves amount to a systematic attack on our right to know. Transparency and accountability are not challenged openly and explicitly. Instead their foundations are stealthily chipped away, often out of sight, both by wilful action and deliberate neglect.
Add to this the threat to the BBC’s future and the preparations for curtailing the power of the courts to determine the legality of ministerial actions, and it is clear that scrutiny is being assailed from all directions.
• Richard Vize is a public policy commentator and analyst