Written evidence from openDemocracy (LOB04)

 

Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee

Post-legislative scrutiny of the Lobbying Act 2014 and related matters inquiry

 

openDemocracy is an independent global media organisation. Through reporting and analysis of social and political issues, we seek to educate citizens to challenge power and encourage democratic debate across the world.

 

At openDemocracy, we rely on government transparency disclosures for our investigations into lobbying.

 

Sometimes they can be useful tools for our reporting, but they tend to provide only the bare minimum detail for ministers’ and officials’ meetings with third parties. When we submit Freedom of Information (FOI) requests to UK government departments to find out more about certain meetings, we often discover that detailed records have not been kept as to what was discussed. This is compounded by the fact that government transparency disclosures are published late and that FOI requests for details of meetings are often stonewalled or refused. Furthermore, it appears that ministers have had difficulty in assessing whether they need to declare meetings with third parties.        

 

We believe that government transparency disclosures can be significantly improved. openDemocracy has tried to obtain ministerial diaries, which provide extra information about ministers’ engagements. This has been a very difficult task, but the diaries we have managed to obtain have been illuminating.      

 

RECOMMENDATIONS:

 

       The UK government commits to publishing transparency disclosures faster, and that departments are held to account when disclosures are published late or are incomplete. 

       The government commits to providing more information about meetings that have taken place in their disclosures. 

       The government ensures that disclosures are complete, accurate and that no meetings are accidentally – or purposely – omitted.

       The government responds to FOI requests about ministerial meetings promptly and provides requested information in full.

       The government commits to keeping thorough records of meetings, including minutes, agendas and attendee lists.

       The government commits to publishing ministerial diaries.

 

The government commits to publishing transparency disclosures faster, and that departments are held to account when disclosures are published late or are incomplete:

 

According to the Ministerial Code, “Departments will publish quarterly, details of Ministers’ external meetings.”[1] But as Transparency International observes, there’s no guidance as to what this means in practice: “It’s ended up being a quarter in arrears, with at least six months between a meeting taking place and information about it reaching the light of day.”[2]

 

It can be very difficult to hold ministers to account when details of their meetings are published several months later. This difficulty is worsened when government departments miss their own deadlines, as Transparency International’s analysis highlights. From Q1 2019 to Q1 2022, it found that government departments rarely publish transparency disclosures within three months, and that the Department for Education, the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office, the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, and the Home Office are the most consistently late.[3] This is simply unacceptable.   

 

The Institute for Government (IfG) has conducted a more long-term analysis, and it appears that the situation has particularly worsened since 2019.[4] The IfG notes: “Most ministerial transparency releases were published within a quarter, as expected. However, several long delays, particularly since Boris Johnson became prime minister, push the average time to publication to 108 days – that is, within two quarters of the quarter it refers to.” 

 

We are not aware of government departments being reprimanded when they miss deadlines for the publication of transparency disclosures.

 

Furthermore, locating departments’ transparency releases can be difficult on the www.gov.uk website. It would be much easier to actually use and analyse the data if it was centralised into one pan-government dataset and published in both quarterly and annual formats.  

 

The government commits to providing more information about meetings that have taken place in their disclosures

 

Ministerial meetings data are meant to include a description of the purpose of the meeting, yet some of these descriptions are so vague and generic that one is forced to submit a FOI request to obtain more information – a measure that only adds delay to holding the government to account.

 

For example, Transparency International examined the period Q1 2021 to Q1 2022, and found that two of the most listed purposes in the ministerial meetings data were “to discuss business” (130 times) and “to discuss energy” (97 times).[5] Other frequently used phrases include “introductory meeting” or “introductory meeting in new role” (203 times). These kinds of descriptions do not tell members of the public anything.

 

Government departments must ensure that ministerial meetings are properly – and meaningfully – described in transparency disclosures.

 

The government ensures that disclosures are complete, accurate and that no meetings are accidentally -– or purposely – omitted:

 

It is important that government departments ensure that transparency disclosures are complete and accurate. Very recently, it was reported that Liz Truss had declared just two meetings as foreign secretary in a three-month period in the government’s transparency register.[6]

 

Time and time again, journalists have discovered that transparency disclosures are incomplete and are missing meetings:

 

       openDemocracy found that meetings and phone calls held by Gavin Williamson, the former education secretary, were not declared in official transparency releases before and during the first pandemic lockdown. The Department for Education subsequently updated the transparency releases.[7]

       David Cameron had a “private drink” with health secretary Matt Hancock and Lex Greensill in 2019. According to The Times, there were “no minutes of Hancock’s meeting with Cameron and Greensill. It is not logged in transparency releases and civil servants did not attend.”[8]

       Business Insider revealed how housing secretary Robert Jenrick failed to disclose a meeting with representatives of the housing industry set up by a lobbying forum. The meeting took place in March 2021.[9] In November 2019, Jenrick had also failed to declare a meeting with a housing-scheme developer, Richard Desmond.[10]

       Newspapers have reported how James Bethell, a minister in the Department of Health, failed to declare 27 of his meetings, which were left off official transparency disclosures for more than a year.[11] Health secretary Matt Hancock also failed to publicly declare meetings with testing firms that later secured millions of pounds worth of Covid contracts.[12]

 

It is also important that ministers do not unreasonably claim their meetings are out of scope because they were for ‘personal’ or ‘political’ purposes, “a dubious defence that results in the evasion of scrutiny”, according to Transparency International.[13] 

 

In September 2020, Reuters reported how trade minister Liz Truss had reversed a decision to remove meetings she had with think tank the Institute of Economic Affairs (IEA) from transparency data.[14] Truss had two meetings and a dinner with the IEA, which were originally declared in the data. The information was then deleted by the department in August, on the grounds that the meetings had been held in a “personal” capacity, before being added back following accusations from the Labour Party that she had tried to hide the meetings.

 

In July, openDemocracy revealed that in a single month of Rishi Sunak’s ministerial diary entries, September 2021, one in five meetings listed was redacted and labelled “political”.[15] Sunak’s diaries show how he spent up to four hours a day dealing with “political” issues, raising questions about whether the chancellor was meeting donors or lobbyists.

 

The Guardian revealed through a FOI response how Hancock was given an overnight stay at a country estate owned by the head of healthcare company Randox. Hancock said he did not need to declare the hospitality as he had not accepted it in a ministerial capacity. But transparency campaigners said there was a “clear expectation” that ministers should declare such hospitality.[16]

 

The government responds to FOI requests about ministerial meetings promptly and provides requested information in full:

 

We often submit FOI requests about ministerial meetings, in part because the descriptions provided in the official transparency data are inadequate. PACAC is very much aware of the problems requesters face when accessing information.[17] Official statistics published by the Cabinet Office show that just 41% of FOI requests to central government departments and agencies were granted in full in 2020 – the lowest proportion since records began in 2005.[18] Recently, the Information Commissioner’s Office reprimanded government departments for not responding to FOI requests in a timely manner.[19]

 

When we do submit FOI requests, it is rare that we receive a successful and full disclosure. Many times, responses are redacted or withheld entirely. For example, we revealed that Boris Johnson met BP’s CEO, Bernard Looney, to discuss the oil giant’s “ambitions to reach net-zero emissions by 2050, supporting the government’s green agenda and COP26”. But when the government was asked to release copies of the minutes and agenda from the meeting, it refused, claiming it would “not be in the public interest” to reveal what was discussed.[20]

 

The government commits to keeping thorough records of meetings, including minutes, agendas and attendee lists:

 

There have been a number of times where we have submitted FOI requests to access more information about ministerial meetings, and been told that meetings have not been minuted.

 

Last August, openDemocracy revealed how the minister for investment, Gerry Grimstone, met with intelligence firm Hakluyt. No minutes were taken of the meeting between Grimstone and the firm.[21] This is far from an isolated incident.   

 

Lack of meeting records makes it difficult to hold the government to account and examine the extent of lobbying. We would also favour a comprehensive register of lobbyists, covering in-house and consultant lobbyists.  

 

 

 

The government commits to publishing ministerial diaries:

 

Following stories of meetings missing from transparency disclosures, as well as the need to examine ministers’ actions as the pandemic gripped the UK, for more than a year openDemocracy has been submitting FOI requests to access their ministerial diaries. We also requested the ministerial diaries of Dominic Raab in the run-up to the Afghanistan crisis.

 

It comes as no surprise that the vast majority of our requests were refused – including one for the ministerial diaries for Boris Johnson. The majority of these FOI requests were deemed “vexatious”. 

 

But a handful of departments have partially disclosed some diaries, and they have been illuminating. We found the following[22]:

 

       Former foreign secretary Dominic Raab cut his workload by around two-thirds in the days before last year’s Afghanistan crisis. Raab had previously claimed that reports of him “lounging on the beach” in August 2021 were “nonsense”.

       One in five meetings held by Rishi Sunak was for “political” reasons, raising the prospect that the former chancellor could have been meeting donors and lobbyists for up to four hours a day as the economic crisis worsened.

       Former education secretary Gavin Williamson’s diary contained meetings and phone calls with businesses that had not been included in previously published government disclosures, which his department claimed was an error.

 

If government departments fully and regularly released ministerial diaries, it would enable the public to scrutinise how ministers spent their time day by day as they made important decisions, especially regarding the pandemic. It would also enable the public to see all the internal and external meetings ministers attended. This would provide more detail in addition to the existing transparency disclosures.

 

More than 4,000 people have signed openDemocracy’s petition calling upon the government to release ministerial diaries.[23]   

 

 

September 2022


[1] https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/1079310/Ministerial_Code.pdf page 22

[2] https://www.transparency.org.uk/uk-government-lobbying-transparency-department-disclosure-delays

[3] https://www.transparency.org.uk/uk-government-lobbying-transparency-department-disclosure-delays

[4] https://www.instituteforgovernment.org.uk/sites/default/files/publications/government-transparency.pdf page 10

[5] https://www.transparency.org.uk/uk-government-lobbying-transparency-department-disclosure-delays

[6] https://www.theguardian.com/politics/2022/aug/11/truss-2-kwarteng-164-wide-variance-in-ministers-declared-meetings Also see: https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/1084865/Meetings-Oct-Dec-2021.csv/preview

[7] https://www.opendemocracy.net/en/boris-johnson-government-refuse-to-publish-pandemic-diaries/

[8] https://www.thetimes.co.uk/article/matt-hancock-dragged-into-david-cameron-lobbying-scandal-zg7j60dxk

[9] https://www.businessinsider.com/robert-jenrick-failed-disclose-meeting-conservative-lobbying-forum-breached-rules-2021-8?r=US&IR=T

[10] https://www.businessinsider.com/robert-jenrick-failed-disclose-meeting-conservative-lobbying-forum-breached-rules-2021-8?r=US&IR=T

[11] https://www.mirror.co.uk/news/politics/under-fire-health-ministers-27-24431519

[12] https://www.mirror.co.uk/news/politics/matt-hancock-attended-more-missing-24439919

[13] https://www.transparency.org.uk/uk-government-lobbying-transparency-department-disclosure-delays

[14] https://www.reuters.com/article/britain-politics-truss/exclusive-uk-trade-minister-reverses-decision-to-remove-think-tank-meetings-from-public-register-idINKBN25U2S2

[15] https://www.opendemocracy.net/en/boris-johnson-government-refuse-to-publish-pandemic-diaries/

[16] https://www.theguardian.com/world/2022/apr/24/matt-hancocks-stay-at-mansion-of-randox-founder-revealed-by-foi-request?fr=operanewsv

[17] https://committees.parliament.uk/work/1348/the-cabinet-office-freedom-of-information-clearing-house/publications/

[18] https://www.documentcloud.org/documents/21091086-opendemocracy_acessdenied_report2021 page 5

[19] https://www.opendemocracy.net/en/freedom-of-information/department-international-trade-information-commissioners-office/

[20] https://www.opendemocracy.net/en/dark-money-investigations/revealing-boris-johnsons-talks-with-bp-not-in-public-interest-uk-government-says/ ​​

[21] https://www.opendemocracy.net/en/opendemocracyuk/secretive-spy-firm-met-uk-minister-to-discuss-ppe-supply/

[22] https://www.opendemocracy.net/en/boris-johnson-government-refuse-to-publish-pandemic-diaries/

[23] https://do.opendemocracy.net/ministers-diaries