Written evidence from Mr David Davis MP (FOI 40)

Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee

The Cabinet Office Freedom of Information Clearing House inquiry

 

 

During the course of the pandemic, the Government – largely through the Cabinet Office – have undertaken a range of polling and focus group exercises to collect data on how the public views the response to Covid.

 

In turn, this data has been used to inform policy. Policy that had profound consequences on people's lives. Wide-ranging curbs to freedom were put in place, businesses were closed, and unprecedented levels of economic support were announced. 

 

As Members of Parliament, our role is to scrutinise the Government's actions, policy and decision making. We are unable to fulfil that role if crucial information is withheld from us.

 

On 28 July 2020, I therefore submitted a Freedom of Information Request to the Cabinet Office requesting sight of any polling that was carried out during the first wave of the Covid pandemic.

 

I received a response on 1 September 2020. Six days after the statutory deadline.

 

Not only was the response late, it also failed to provide any of the requested information.

 

The Cabinet Office relied on Section 35 (1)(a) of the Freedom of Information Act, stating:

 

"The information requested informs the government's communications response to various policy issues. It is therefore related to the government's ongoing, evolving policy stance on these matters and is being withheld under Section 35(1)(a) of the Freedom of Information Act."

 

However, Section 35(2) of the Act makes it abundantly clear that this exemption does not apply "Once a decision on government policy has been taken".

 

Therefore, Section 35(1)(a) would only apply if all polling since January 2020 was related to decisions still being taken. This is inconceivable.

 

The Cabinet Office has also argued my request triggers the cost exemption included in the Act. However, again, I do not believe this to be correct in this instance.

 

The data would have been sent to the Cabinet Office by the contractor in a singular data package.

 

Unless the Cabinet Office have deliberately dissipated the information throughout their filing system, then it should be relatively easy and near zero cost for a file to be identified and provided as part of the release.

 

Since my request, the Cabinet Office has steadfastly refused to publish the requested information. Instead, they continue to hide behind the justification that the polling data is still being used to inform public policy and applying the relevant exemption.

 

While I appreciate and understand why this exemption exists in law, and I am aware of situations where its use is entirely legitimate, I fail to see how it is appropriately applied in this instance.

 

My initial Freedom of Information request to the Cabinet Office requested polling data from 1 January 2020. Twenty months have now passed since that polling would have been carried out.

 

In that time, we have been through three national lockdowns. Tiered local restrictions have been enacted and subsequently withdrawn. The Delta variant has changed how we tackle this virus, and vaccines are now powering our exit from restrictions.

 

Put simply; we are in a wholly different position than we were in January 2020. It is entirely unbelievable that the Cabinet Office is still relying on entirely outdated polling to inform decision making.

 

In such instances, it is imperative that this data is made available for scrutiny. Not only so Members can do their job holding the Government to account for decisions taken during the pandemic, but also so that we can learn from the unique experiences of the last two years.

 

If we are to avoid the same mistakes the next time crisis strikes this country, it is vital we have access to this data.

 

However, there is also a wider context to my Freedom of Information request. 

 

The polling data I have requested was paid for by the taxpayer, supposedly to benefit the taxpayer. 

 

But it could also be argued the Government has effectively used large amounts of taxpayers' money to gain a political advantage.

 

This is an issue of fairness. The public ought to have access to polling data they have paid for.

 

I have also sought to access this information through a series of Written Parliamentary Questions. Yet still, the Cabinet Office continue to hide behind the implausible excuse that polling nearly two years old is still being used to inform current policy decisions.

 

This issue has now dragged on for over a year. The Cabinet Office has acted entirely improperly. Their wrongful application of exemptions has prevented Parliament and MPs from properly fulfilling their role as elected representatives of the people.

 

Scant regard is being shown for the principles behind the Freedom of Information Act 2000. The Cabinet Office must be taken to task on this and changes must be made to the way in which the Act is implemented by the Cabinet Office.

 

October 2021