Written evidence from Henry Dyer (FOI 43)
Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee
The Cabinet Office Freedom of Information Clearing House inquiry
- I am Henry Dyer, a politics reporter at Insider since May 2021. I was previously a freelance journalist and researcher primarily working with Private Eye and The Times from August 2019 to May 2021.
- The subjects I write about have a significant overlap with the areas covered by the Cabinet Office and Downing Street, including but not limited to: political financing, electoral law, public appointments, the ministerial code, and the revolving door.
- In the course of my investigations on these matters, I frequently submit FOI requests to the Cabinet Office, so have experienced first hand the highly questionable nature of their responses. As anecdotal evidence, I will outline three instances of the Cabinet Office’s more peculiar handling of my FOI requests.
BROOKS NEWMARK’S EMAILS TO MICHAEL GOVE
- Following DHSC’s disclosure of emails from a former minister, Brooks Newmark, and the-then Health Secretary Matt Hancock and then-Chancellor of the Duchy of Michael Gove, I made an FOI request on May 17 to the Cabinet Office for equivalent communications held by the Cabinet Office as received or sent by Gove to or from Brooks Newmark. Acknowledgement was sent on May 18. The initial response on June 10 rejected the request on the grounds searching for communications to cover a year would breach the spending limit. A clarified request of only four months was extended on July 8 to August 9.
- The response eventually came on August 5, saying that while the Cabinet Office did hold the information, it was commercially sensitive, and its release could somehow affect the “sound management of the NHS” as well as “the government’s position in these negotiations and make it harder for the responsible department to secure a sound financial and contractual basis for the future operation of the railways.”
- Given the emails as disclosed by DHSC had nothing to do with the railways, nor the management of the NHS, but concerned PPE procurement, this justification for refusal to release the information struck me as odd. A request for internal review lodged on August 17 was acknowledged on August 20. By September 27, having asked the Cabinet Office for an update, I was told my case was still under consideration.
- I received the internal review on October 1, 113 days after my clarified request of June 10. Having reconsidered the information previously identified, the reviewer found that information was not in fact in scope of my original request, and as it happened the Cabinet Office did not hold any information within the scope of my request - surprising, given the DHSC’s disclosed emails suggesting Michael Gove had received emails from Brooks Newmark during the period requested.
- One potential explanation for this is that the emails sent to Michael Gove may have been sent to his Parliamentary email address - but given they clearly concerned government business, not constituency business, it would have been appropriate for the emails to be stored for retrieval by the Cabinet Office’s freedom of information team or otherwise archived. A transparent approach to governance - which is what I believe the Freedom of Information Act is designed to achieve - must start with effective record-keeping. A failure to ensure emails are stored by the relevant department as the data controller, as opposed to being kept by ministers as their own data controllers in their role as MPs is a blow to transparency, the public interest, and future effective governance.
- Furthermore, it is my understanding that the emails were sent to Matt Hancock via his Parliamentary email address, suggesting an ability to ensure emails on government business were stored at DHSC but not the Cabinet Office.
- I have still not received a response to my meta-request for the justification of why my initial request of May 17 was out of scope, lodged on June 10, and extended on July 8, August 9, September 7, and October 5. The Cabinet Office says these extensions are necessary to consider the public interest. The Cabinet Office’s handling of my enquiries for detail as to when I might receive a response has ranged from frustrating to amusing: one particular highlight was being told there was an attached letter which ought to explain why the extension was necessary, only to find that not only was the letter not attached, but when it was eventually received, there was no explanation for the third consecutive extension.
THE APPOINTMENT OF THE INDEPENDENT ADVISER ON MINISTERS’ INTERESTS
- Following the appointment of Lord Geidt as the Prime Minister’s independent adviser on ministers’ interests, on April 28, I requested documents and correspondence related to the appointment process, from November 2020, when Lord Geidt’s predecessor resigned, to April 28.
- On May 27, the Cabinet Office responded, claiming a section 21 exemption, suggesting the information requested had already been published. I was pointed to letters between the Prime Minister and Lord Geidt; the new terms of reference; a press release announcing his appointment; and a letter from the Cabinet Secretary to this committee. This response struck me as strange, as it seemed to claim that all the documents held by the Cabinet Office as to the appointment of an important adviser to the Prime Minister were solely those produced after his appointment. This suggests that Lord Geidt was appointed without a single record, document, or piece of correspondence being produced or received by the Cabinet Office, which would be an unimaginable miracle of bureaucratic efficiency.
- But in response to an FOI request from a different individual for correspondence between Lord Geidt and the Prime Minister; the Cabinet Secretary; and the Director General of Propriety and Ethics at the Cabinet Office, the department stated: “We identified the following information in respect of the Cabinet Secretary; Lord Geidt and the Cabinet Secretary met on Monday 29 March at 18:30, for 30 minutes [and] a letter from Lord Geidt to the Cabinet Secretary declaring his outside interests and a response from the Cabinet Secretary regarding Lord Geidt’s outside interests and his role as Independent Advisor.” These letters were withheld from publication, but they were at the very least identified in this request, as was the meeting, but not in mine.
- I wrote to the Cabinet Office the same day requesting an internal review. I have not yet received a response, 137 days later.
- A particularly frustrating aspect of how internal reviews work is that internal review reference numbers differ from FOI reference numbers, and when acknowledgement is made of an internal review, it does not state which FOI response will be reviewed. This would seem to be trivially easy to improve.
THE PRIME MINISTER’S VISIT TO TEESSIDE
- On August 23, I made two separate requests to the Cabinet Office relating to the Prime Minister’s visit to Teesside on April 1. The first, a request for a receipt, is unlikely to be successful, as it is understood no such receipt exists, though I am yet to receive a response that this information is not held. The second was a request for correspondence held by events planning staff or the Prime Minister’s private office.
- On September 22 - and I must give credit for fact no extensions were necessary to determine the result - the response came that a search of records suggested no information was held as specified in my request. Another miracle of bureaucratic efficiency, in that no records are held on the Prime Minister travelling across the country by plane.
THE CLEARING HOUSE
- I am unaware if any of my queries have been the subject of the Clearing House’s work, so cannot personally comment on its role and operation, aside from lending my full support to colleagues at openDemocracy and The Times, and their statements on the Clearing House’s obstructions to their work in the public interest.
- The Cabinet Office appears to act in an unpredictable manner, and attempts to peek behind the curtain by making meta-requests are vehemently delayed, refused, or dismissed as vexatious (e.g. Times journalist George Greenwood’s treatment, and that of openDemocracy’s Peter Geoghegan). Internal reviews are poorly handled and inconsistent - it can certainly feel as if the outcome of an FOI request may be due to which individual it is assigned to, or whether or not they are aware of one’s occupation.
- This unpredictability strays into misleading and incorrect assertions which are difficult to correct. Addressing errors is time-consuming and can require detailed knowledge of how FOI exemptions work - and how they are supposed to work. The delays can make it so it can be too late to do something about wrongdoing. This is a fundamental failure of transparency. Access to information is a cornerstone of our democracy, and the Cabinet Office appears to be failing in its duty to uphold it.