hp sauce

Wave bye bye to FoI
Government secrecy , Issue 1559

INFO WARS: Obliging quangocrat John Edwards and freedom of information campaigner Maurice Frankel
BORIS JOHNSON's government is bringing blanket official secrecy back to Whitehall, quietly excluding new official agencies from the Freedom of Information Act (FoI) while strengthening the power of ministers and bureaucrats to censor.

In the newly appointed information commissioner, John Edwards, the PM has found a quangocrat who seems willing to oblige. Every previous commissioner opposed making FoI disclosures dependent on the ability to pay, but last month Edwards told MPs it was "legitimate" to impose charges to stop citizens and hacks "abusing" the system.

Criminal offence
Not that there will be much of a system left to abuse by the time this government has finished. Its Health and Care Bill will establish a Health Services Safety Investigations Body to investigate medical scandals – but to ensure its investigations stay in a "safe space", the Department of Health and Social Care will prohibit FoI disclosures. It will also make whistleblowing about the investigators' blunders a criminal offence.

Similar restrictions can be found in the Advanced Research and Invention Agency Bill, which aims to make Dominic Cummings' dream of promoting high-risk, high-reward science come true. Ministers want to exempt its £800m budget from FoI legislation.

Meanwhile, the Department for Environment, Food & Rural Affairs has tried to ban disclosure of information about the work of its proposed Office for Environmental Protection, which will investigate serious breaches of environmental law. After protests, the department seemed to accept it had gone too far. But the Campaign for Freedom of Information says its legislation does not make the concession clear and could still be read by the courts as overriding rights to access.

In 2015 the Tory press went wild when David Cameron's government set up a commission to review the 2000 Freedom of Information Act, as a prelude to watering it down. The Telegraph accused ministers of packing the inquiry with politicians who had been embarrassed by freedom of information – including Labour's Jack Straw, who as foreign secretary blocked the release of cabinet papers on the Iraq war, and former Tory leader Michael Howard, who was criticised during the expenses scandal for claiming £17,351 to pay his gardeners.

'Guerrilla tactics'
The Mail ran thundering comment pieces claiming the government wanted to repeal a law that had exposed "dodgy MPs, paedophiles, nuclear risk, RAF air raids and scroungers". Ministers backed off and the commission did not recommend new restrictions. Indeed, it rejected the idea of charging for access, which Edwards is now proposing, because "a fee for information requests could hamper investigations".

Six years on, ministers are trying again – and no wonder. During the pandemic, FoI requests revealed the government's failure to act on a warning from as long ago as 2005 about how deadly a coronavirus outbreak could be, and showed a friend of Matt Hancock complaining that bidders for Covid contracts had to demonstrate that they had experience in healthcare.

Maurice Frankel of the Campaign for Freedom of Information says that, having failed to restore official secrecy with a full-frontal assault, the government is trying guerrilla tactics instead. "In a few years," he tells the Eye, "they will be able to say, 'No one minds new agencies operating in secret, so why not extend secrecy to the whole public sector?'"

To read all these stories in full, please buy issue 1559 of Private Eye - you can subscribe here and have the magazine delivered to your home every fortnight.

Next issue on sale: 8th December 2021

More top stories in the latest issue:

The need for drastic belt-tightening means the government now plans to axe what was once the Tories' flagship business support scheme.

After just 90 minutes of debate, MPs waved through renewal of the Coronavirus Act 2020, the supposedly short-term measures from the start of the pandemic.

Labour's scheme to develop pro-Starmer parliamentary candidates has recruited some young thrusters with less than firm roots in the Labour movement.

More than 20 years after David Evans first presented a plan to overhaul the running of the Labour party, he now has his chance to put it into practice.

The government's Heat and Buildings Strategy sets out plans to retrofit as many homes as possible by 2035 – but the reality falls short of the hype.

The government's recent health and social care reform summit failed to include any disabled people's organisations among the 43 invited "leaders and experts".

Disgraced former health secretary Matt Hancock was caught in the crossfire between the UN Economic Commission for Africa and the UN's top brass.

The EU's Stability and Growth Pact (SGP), which in fact enshrined budget austerity, was one of the early victims of the pandemic.

After a bollocking from MPs, the Defence Infrastructure Organisation (DIO) has found a crumb of success to announce: the opening of its new £12m offices.

The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs is to commission, at a cost of £300,000, "a mindfulness app" for its civil servants. Bless.

Private Eye Issue 1559
In This Issue
Virulent new Delta variant backs government’s ‘wait and see’ strategy… ‘Santa allowed to make unlimited deliveries in December’ to save Christmas… Freed from the EU yoke, we can now pour British turds into our rivers – Daily Brexpress exclusive… Putin and Xi agree to save energy by not going to COP26…US in shock over fatal shooting not involving a cop or a black man… Critics praise David Hare’s row with BBC as his ‘first decent drama in years’… Supporters of Assisted Dying Bill fight to keep it alive… Shock scenes in New York as UN unites to say ‘We don’t want Matt Hancock’… ‘We need kinder, gentler politics’ agree all the worst people online… Dame Joan Collins’ Diary, as told to Craig Brown

Mindful madness
Now Defra goes happy cr-appy

Centre parting
Starmer and his party’s uncontrollable purges

Forced labour
From Malaysia to an NHS ward near you

Read these stories and much more - only in the magazine. Subscribe here to get delivery direct to your home and never miss an issue!
ONLY £2.50
8th December 2021
Private Eye Issue 1558