Written evidence from Culture Unstained[1] (FOI 35)

Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee

The Cabinet Office Freedom of Information Clearing House inquiry

 

 

Introduction and wider context

 

It is well-documented that the fossil fuel industry continues to invest heavily in lobbying activities, either directly or via trade bodies, in order to advocate for policy positions that prioritise profit generation over the urgent demands of climate science. To give just one illustration, the organisation Influence Map have identified that, “In the three years following the Paris Agreement, the five largest publicly-traded oil and gas majors (ExxonMobil, Royal Dutch Shell, Chevron, BP and Total) have invested over $1bn of shareholder funds on misleading climate-related branding and lobbying.” 

 

In addition, the organisation Paid to Pollute recently highlighted how, since the Paris Agreement was signed, the UK government has paid £4 billion of public money to North Sea oil and gas companies via tax relief and decommissioning costs. In practice, these amount to a form of government subsidy to companies continuing to invest in new fossil fuel exploration and extraction. In May, the International Energy Agency (IEA) released its report ‘Net Zero by 2050 - A roadmap for the global energy sector’. The IEA’s executive director Fatih Birol said at the time, “If governments are serious about the climate crisis, there can be no new investments in oil, gas and coal, from now – from this year.” From the proposed Cambo oil field to a new coal mine in Cumbria, the UK government - in collaboration with major fossil fuel companies - is continuing to support and invest in new oil, gas and coal. 

 

It is against this backdrop that the FOIA becomes an essential tool for ensuring that information relating to the government’s approach to climate change is disclosed. Given the urgent need for ambitious and unprecedented climate action to be taken by the government, there is also a heightened public interest in such information being disclosed. FOIA requests provide greater clarity and transparency around the government’s agenda and policy positions and, crucially, shed light on any disruptive or obstructive role representatives of the fossil fuel industry might have played in that process. While the government does need to consult with business and the private sector in the course of developing and implementing policy, the fossil fuel industry’s past record of “delay and denial”, alongside the urgent need for climate action, means that there is a greater need for transparency and accountability in this area. The FOIA is central to providing that.

 

Media coverage of our FOIA requests and disclosures

 

Our research work has regularly been featured in the media and FOIA disclosures often form a central part of these investigations. Some prominent examples include:

 

 

Culture Unstained is also regularly featured in both print and broadcast media commenting upon developments relating to corporate sponsorship, climate change and the fossil fuel industry, from responding to BP’s announcement of its “Net Zero” ambition on Sky News to commenting on fossil fuel sponsorship of cultural organisations on BBC Radio 4. 

 

As the Committee will be aware, documents acquired by Open Democracy have shed light on the Cabinet Office’s ‘Clearing House’ and that the expectation that FOIA requests are responded to in an “applicant blind” way has not always been adhered to. Given the visibility of our work in the media, the Clearing House’s flagging of several of our previous FOIA requests and response times which often exceed six months (see below), we have similar concerns that requests are not being handled in an “applicant blind” manner. 

 

The Cabinet Office and the UK’s hosting of the COP26 Climate Summit

 

Ahead of the UK government’s hosting of the COP26 Climate Summit in Glasgow, Culture Unstained and other organisations submitted several FOIA requests to the Cabinet Office. Initial decisions and policy development relating to the UK’s hosting of COP26 had taken place within BEIS but that was transferred when the COP Unit was established within the Cabinet Office for the purposes of coordinating the UK’s hosting of the summit. Consequently, the bulk of FOIA requests concerning COP26 would now be submitted directly to the Cabinet Office. The focus of Culture Unstained’s requests concerned the role and potential involvement of the fossil fuel industry in COP26, primarily through corporate sponsorship agreements, as previous summits had regularly provided prominent platforms to major oil, gas and coal extracting companies for, among other things, the purposes of brand promotion.

 

While the Cabinet Office’s response to our FOIA requests varied depending on the exact focus, certain patterns characterised its responses:

 

 

Separately, we agreed that a case relating to our FOIA requests to the Cabinet Office and BEIS in relation to COP26 could be closed by the ICO, in part, on the understanding that the Cabinet Office would arrange a call with us in order to discuss the subject of our FOIA requests. That offer was made to us via the ICO in February 2021. After repeated delays, that call has still not taken place and the ICO Case Officer informed us that they had not received the engagement that had originally been promised by the Cabinet Office.

 

The significance of the COP26 Climate Summit cannot be overstated, both within the UK and internationally. Unlike other aspects of the government’s work which could be considered more ongoing, COP26 is a one-off event on the world stage and part of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC). This means that there is a limited window of time in which transparency around COP26 can be secured in advance of the summit itself. The repeated extensions, excessive delays and application of exemptions have had the cumulative effect of preventing greater transparency and accountability around the planning of the summit. This has also had the knock-on effect that requests to the Cabinet Office for internal review and subsequent referrals to the ICO cannot be processed before COP26 takes place. Ultimately, it appears that extensions and exemptions have often been applied as a delaying tactic and, in this case, has ensured that there has not been greater scrutiny of the planning process.

 

Examples and evidence

 

We have set out below several examples relating to our FOIA requests to the Cabinet Office. However, we are aware that our experience is not an isolated one and that several other organisations working in this area and seeking information related to climate change and the COP26 Climate Summit have encountered similar issues.

 

Documents relating to the below can be provided to the Committee upon request.   

 

 

 

 

FOI2020/11273

 

Scope: A request seeking information relating to how criteria for corporate sponsors of COP26 were drafted and implemented, as well as details of the due diligence process that would be followed.

Submitted on: 20th August 2020. We received three extension notices from the Cabinet Office informing us that it needed additional time to consider the application of Section 35. 

Response received: 30th November 2020. 

Exemptions: No further reference to Section 35 was made but Section 31(1)(a)(b) and (g) was applied to part of the request asking to see a due diligence checklist or similar for assessing prospective sponsors of COP26. Both the delay and apparent shift in approach to the handling of the request was concerning and informed our decision to later submit a meta-request (see below).

Internal review requested: 11th December 2020.

Response received: 28th January 2021. The Cabinet Office made public the application document for corporate sponsors but no further information relating to the first part of our request.

 

FOI2020/13217

 

Scope: A request seeking correspondence and information regarding meetings between ministers/members of the COP Unit with the companies BP, Shell and Equinor during June-August 2020.

Submitted on: 24th September 2020. We received five extension notices from the Cabinet Office informing us it needed additional time to consider the application of Section 43 and to conduct a public interest test. On 16th February 2021, we made a complaint to the ICO concerning the repeated extensions to the response time of our request. On the 26th February, the ICO informed us that it had written to the Cabinet Office and instructed it to respond within 20 working days.

Response received: 3rd March 2021. No further reference to Section 43 was made or the public interest test that had supposedly been undertaken. A single meeting appointment document was disclosed.

Exemptions: Despite having indicated that it was considering our request under the FOIA and the application of Section 43, in its ultimate response, the Cabinet Office informed us that it had applied regulation 13(1) of the EIRs (personal data). Both the delay and apparent shift in approach to the handling of the request was concerning and informed our decision to later submit a meta-request (see below).

 

FOI2021/05762

 

Scope: A meta-request seeking to gain clarity around the Cabinet Office’s handling of our previous requests FOI 2020/13217 and FOI 2020/11273

Submitted on: 16th March 2021

Response received: 26th August 2021, after referring our request to the ICO due to the excessive delay. Repeated extension notices had been sent by the Cabinet Office indicating that it was considering exemptions under Section 36. The response was provided on the day of the deadline set by the ICO.

Exemptions: Application of section 36(2)(b)(i), 36(2)(b)(ii) and Section 36(2)(c)

Internal review requested: 1st September 2021

Response received: Outstanding at time of submission of evidence. 

 

FOI2021/08606

 

Scope: A request seeking details of correspondence and meetings between COP26 High Level Champion Nigel Topping and several prominent fossil fuel companies, limited in scope to the period July-December 2020.

Submitted on: 15th April 2021

Response received: The Cabinet Office issued two extension notices to the request indicating that it was considering whether exemptions under Section 43 could be applied and was therefore undertaking the necessary public interest test. The response date was given as the 13th July 2021. We contacted that Cabinet Office on the 14th June outlining how it had not provided sufficient justification for extending the response time beyond the reasonable limit. No response has been provided by the Cabinet Office and no further correspondence has been received at the time of making this submission.

 

Subject Access Request

 

Scope: A Subject Access Request to the Cabinet Office requesting personal data that it holds on Dr Chris Garrard, Co-director of Culture Unstained.

Submitted on: 22nd December 2020

Response received: After repeated follow-up emails which had received no response, the Cabinet Office provided a response on the 28th May 2021. The Cabinet Office disclosed a 68-page table which logged information relating to the handling of our previous FOIA requests across government. Several direct references to the Clearing House are made:

 

 


Summary and recommendations

 

We have encountered a pattern of unjustified extensions and exemptions applied to our FOIA requests to the Cabinet Office, largely in relation to the COP26 Climate Summit. Based on the evidence gathered by Open Democracy as well as our own Subject Access Request, we believe that the Clearing House is likely to have played a role in frustrating our attempts to promote transparency and accountability around the COP26 Climate Summit.

 

We believe that as part of its investigation, the committee needs to consider:

 

 

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s (IPCC) recent report was described as a ‘code red for humanity’. Against this backdrop, the FOIA has become an increasingly important means for providing transparency and accountability around government and institutional responses to the climate crisis. This underscores the importance of effectively addressing the issues raised here by the Clearing House and recognising that any conclusions reached by the committee will also have broader implications for compliance with the FOIA by other institutions. 

 

 

 

September 2021

 

                   

         

 


[1] Culture Unstained is a campaigning, research and engagement organisation which aims to bring about the end of fossil fuel sponsorship of arts and culture. By undermining the social legitimacy or “social licence” which fossil fuel companies hope to gain from corporate sponsorship deals, we strengthen efforts to hold the fossil fuel industry to account and expose the ways in which it remains an obstacle to the just energy transition we urgently need.

 

As part of our research and investigations work, we regularly submit Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests both to national museums and galleries (which fall under the definition of an ‘arm’s length government body’) and to government departments such as the Cabinet Office. The purpose of these requests is to gain greater clarity and transparency around the government’s approach to climate issues, and specifically its interactions with the fossil fuel industry.