THE Cabinet Office has spent at least £300,000 blocking transparency requests in court, it has emerged.
The spending covered legal fees for the department to challenge decisions by the government’s own transparency watchdog ordering it to release information, according to reprots today.
The development comes amid widespread concern about the UK Government’s approach to transparency. The Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO), which enforces the public’s right to information, has had to put three government departments into special measures over failures to properly handle transparency requests.
The Cabinet Office provided details of the cost in legal fees of 13 cases where it had attempted to overturn decisions by the ICO that it had to release records after a Times freedom of information request.
These included cases in which eventual disclosure revealed concerning practices or significant due diligence failings.
It is not clear whether the cases include lawyers' fees paid by the Cabinet Office relating to requests by the SNP's Tommy Sheppard to obtain polling information carried out by the department on attitudes to the union.
The Scottish MP has been seeking to have the information released for three years and last year won an Information Commissioner ruling to have the documents made public.
However despite the ruling the Cabinet Office refused to release the data and lodged an appeal.
Last year it refused to reveal how much it had spent on legal fees relating to Mr Sheppard's case.
Earlier this year Mr Sheppard accused the UK Government of “spending money like there’s no tomorrow” hiring one of Britain's to lawyers James Eadie KC to fight its case.
Mr Sheppard told The Herald: "The Cabinet Office approach to Freedom of Information is to refuse first and find reasons afterward.
“In 2019 I requested access to publicly-funded Cabinet Office polling. Three years on I’m still in legal appeals purgatory, facing off against their most senior KC and legal team.
“This spending is just the tip of the iceberg when you add in all the hours being wasted by civil servants who should be solving the country’s problems, not helping ministers find flimsy excuses to keep even trivial things secret.
“The Cabinet Office culture is one of secrecy and obstruction and it needs to change.”
Meanwhile, The Times today reported that the Cabinet Office spent £46,000 to try to block the release of information about the vetting of Dr Vijay Patel, owner of a pharmaceutical company that had allegedly overcharged the NHS for drugs, for an honour.
The judge refused the Cabinet Office’s appeal last year and the disclosure showed that civil servants had failed to identify reported concerns until late on in the stage of awarding him an OBE, and by that point it was decided that it was too late in the process to stop it.
In another high-profile case the department spent nearly £40,000 trying to prevent the release of information about its secretive “clearing house”.
The disclosure confirmed that the personal details of journalists making requests were being shared across Whitehall, raising press freedom concerns.
The judge in the case said that documents the Cabinet Office presented in court about the Clearing House were “misleading” and noted a “profound lack of transparency about the operation”, which might “extend to ministers” in relation to the unit.
The outcry over the revelations, including a critical report by the public administration and constitutional affairs select committee, led to the department agreeing to scrap the unit and replace it with a “centre of excellence” for government transparency.
In other cases it is unclear why the government spent thousands of pounds in an attempt to prevent the release of what appears to be trivial information. It spent £32,000 trying to stop someone seeing Cabinet Office emails concerning why the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport decided to add digital to its name in 2017.
In another case, the department spent nearly £7,000 to unsuccessfully block the release of statistical information about interactions on the prime minister’s Facebook page on the grounds that it would interfere with policy-making. In this case the judge found that the case had been “hampered by delays on the part of the Cabinet Office, which bordered on the contemptuous”.
Separately, the Cabinet Office spent a significant sum on a case involving the historian Andrew Lownie, where it tried to block access to parts of the historical archives of personal diaries of Lord and Lady Mountbatten, in part on the grounds that the “dignity” of the late Queen could have been compromised. The Times understands that the final taxpayer cost was about £170,000.
The Cabinet Office spent 16 months attempting to block the release of this information about how much it spent on appeals, only disclosing it in this case after being ordered to do so by the Information Commissioner’s Office.
Maurice Frankel, director of the Campaign for Freedom of Information, said: “For the Cabinet Office to have fought these cases on the taxpayers’ back is questionable when the public interest in disclosure is clearly so high. This is very poor judgment, where they only appear to choose to see the public interest in opaqueness.”
A Cabinet Office spokeswoman said: “This government is fully committed to transparency. We publish more information than ever before and routinely disclose information beyond the obligations under the FOI Act. We always balance the need to make information available with our legal duty to protect sensitive information. The judgments in these cases show that the majority of the Cabinet Office’s decisions were legally correct.”