nazi britain

Boris Johnson politicized the Ministerial Code in 2019 & now, anything goes
Leighton Andrews, Byline Times, Nov 24 2020

The Foreword to the Ministerial Code written by Boris Johnson in August 2019 gives the full context of why Priti Patel was allowed to stay in the Cabinet. The Foreword’s opening sentence reads:

The mission of this Government is to deliver Brexit on Oct 31 for the purpose of uniting and re-energising our whole United Kingdom and making this country the greatest place on earth.

The Government may have failed its Oct 31 mission, but the Brexit context is everything. Later on, the Prime Minister’s Foreword states:

Crucially, there must be no delay, and no misuse of process or procedure by any individual Minister that would seek to stall the collective decisions necessary to deliver Brexit and secure the wider changes needed across our United Kingdom.

This is the Ministerial Code used as a weapon in the culture war. Everything, including standards in government, is seen through the Brexit lens. Brexiteers like Patel are safe. The mission to deliver Brexit overrides what we had come to understand were the acceptable standards of public life. Awkwardly, the Prime Minister’s Foreword also states:

There must be no bullying and no harassment; no leaking; no breach of collective responsibility. No misuse of taxpayer money and no actual or perceived conflicts of interest.

Bullying, leaking, misuse of taxpayers’ money: well, all those have been evident. The Prime Minister has contradicted his independent advisor on the bullying issue; two of the alleged chief leakers have departed; the National Audit Office has produced a scathing report on the separate high-priority channel for friends of MPs and Ministers to win Covid procurement contracts at a high cost to the taxpayer. But no matter, if you’re a Brexiter. The PM will get his mates to form a square around you, a much better defence than the ‘protective ring’ Matt Hancock claimed had been thrown around care homes. Boris Johnson has never believed that the rules apply to him. He is the first Prime Minister to have been censured by both the Advisory Committee on Business Appointments and the Parliamentary Standards Commissioner for breaking the rules. In his first few weeks, he sought a prorogation of Parliament subsequently judged illegal by the Supreme Court. His Internal Market Bill breaks international law “in a limited and specific way.” Johnson’s rule-breaking is a policy, not an accident. In a system where so many of the rules rest on unwritten consensus on norms and behaviours, Johnson tests what he can get away with. And his adherents want more. The think-tank Policy Exchange, some of whose authors have been keen to stress their role in writing last year’s Conservative manifesto, has been developing proposals for a radical constitutional reordering. The proposed rebranding the Supreme Court as an Upper Court of Appeal, essentially nullifying its role as a constitutional court, strengthening ministerial oversight of judicial appointments and limiting judicial review, the reestablishment of Parliamentary sovereignty but with the executive’s powers reinforced, limits on the Human Rights Act and on the application of the European Convention on Human Rights, and the politicization of public appointments, something the Commissioner on Public Appointments, the respected former political editor Peter Riddell, has warned about.

The Queen’s Speech announced a Constitution, Democracy and Human Rights commission whose members, says Policy Exchange, must be ‘united by a shared appreciation of the UK’s traditional constitution.’ Since we are not yet a hundred years form the establishment of the Irish Free State, it’s not entirely clear what that ‘traditional constitution’ might mean. But this is an agenda based on the notion of ‘the will of the people,’ enshrined in the Ministerial Code as the mission to deliver Brexit. If Johnson gets his way, we can expect it to be implemented ruthlessly, just as the majoritarian vote in the referendum was used ruthlessly to remove a variety of citizenship rights from UK citizens, and as ruthlessly as dissident long-standing Conservatives were thrown overboard for their summer rebellion last year. We’ve had twenty-five years since Lord Nolan’s report on public standards was adopted. The Nolan rules depended on a shared political consensus about the norms which underpin standards in public life and a media that endorsed those standards and ways of operating and refused to downplay breaches of norms simply because the politician affected shared their views on a particular issue. In the UK today, attitudes to Brexit determine attitudes to political norms, and the Ministerial Code is simply a weapon in the culture war. The Nolan rules, in the jargon of today, need a reset, and they need statutory underpinning. We need an Office of Government Ethics, properly resourced, staffed and empowered, accountable to Parliament not Government, in place of the advisory bodies and rules which have been ignored or shredded by the Prime Minister. But don’t hold your breath.

Hancock added to anti-Muslim hate with distancing claims, says government adviser
Josh Halliday, Guy Kilty, Groan, Nov 24 2020

The government has been criticised by its own Islamophobia adviser for refusing to publish the evidence behind Matt Hancock’s claim that people were “not abiding to social distancing” as he imposed a lockdown on 4.6m people in northern England at the start of the Muslim celebration of Eid al-Adha. Qari Asim, the deputy chair of a government taskforce on anti-Muslim hatred, said:

Hancock’s claim on Twitter added to hateful narratives and gave the impression that Muslim communities were not social distancing and were ignoring the government guidelines.

Hancock made the remark in a late-night Twitter thread on Jul 30, when Eid al-Adha started, announcing with three hours’ notice that strict restrictions would be imposed on Greater Manchester, parts of East Lancashire, West Yorkshire and Leicester from midnight. He said:

The spread is largely due to households meeting and not abiding to social distancing. So from midnight tonight, people from different households will not be allowed to meet each other indoors in these areas.

The lockdown, imposed 12 weeks ago and largely still in place, sparked a frenzy on far-right social media networks as extremists blamed Muslims for spreading the coronavirus. The timing and manner of the announcement was immediately criticised by police chiefs, MPs from all parties, and Muslim leaders who described it as “shameless scapegoating of Muslims.” Many of the northern cities and towns placed under lockdown have above-average south Asian populations. In response to a freedom of information request, the Dept of Health and Social Care (DHSC) confirmed it held the evidence to support Hancock’s claim but refused to publish it. It said:

To publish the data would jeopardise the internal deliberative process as it relates to policy-making.

Asim, a senior adviser to the government, urged ministers to publish the data immediately. He said:

Hancock’s claim gave the impression that Muslim communities were not social distancing and were ignoring the government guidelines. Therefore it’s only right that full data is made public to make things clearer. We saw a rise of Islamophobia online [in the aftermath of the announcement] and the Muslim communities were seen as the cause of another lockdown. Some people definitely felt that the timing of the announcement was very poor. The way it was made showed disregard to a faith community. We don’t want to give rise to hateful narratives and it’s really important that the authorities ensure that such hateful narratives are not supported.

Hancock’s tweets came just hours after a high-level meeting had considered a report by a subgroup of the government’s Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (Sage) that said:

Local lockdowns lead to a divided nation and, may be exploited by extreme right-wing groups. Perceived inconsistency or unfairness in how and where restrictions are imposed could lead to social unrest and public disorder.

‘Sir’ Chris Ham, the former chief executive of the health think-tank the King’s Fund, said:

The evidence used by ministers when taking lockdown decisions should always be made public, especially as these decisions have a major impact on the lives of people affected. Transparency is essential if public trust in the government’s decisions is to be restored, as already happens with Sage minutes.

Wajid Khan, the mayor of Burnley borough council, one of the towns placed under lockdown, said:

The manner of Hancock’s announcement led Muslims to feel scapegoated and blame. They felt used, confused and abused. The government’s failure to publish the evidence behind Hancock’s claim will exacerbate distrust towards the way decision-making affects those communities. It is in all of our interest to find out what led to this controversial decision.

The DHSC has been contacted for comment.

‘Orwellian’ government unit obstructs freedom of information, says report
Rob Evans, Groan, Nov 24 2020

The government has been accused of operating an “Orwellian” unit that obstructs the release of sensitive information requested by the public under the Freedom of Information Act. A new report on the “clearing house,” a little-known unit that sits at the heart of government, discloses how it seeks to control the release of potentially embarrassing information. The unit requires Whitehall departments to send it requests that are deemed to be potentially sensitive or too expensive to answer. The unit routinely instructs departments to submit to it drafts of proposed responses so that they can be vetted. The requests, which are understood to total about 50 a day, have often originated from journalists seeking to hold ministers to account, campaigners challenging government policy and academics. On Tuesday, the openDemocracy website called the unit “Orwellian” in a report which accuses ministers of hindering the disclosure of information in “disturbing” ways. Introduced in 2005 to open up the workings of official bodies, the Freedom of Information Act allows the public to submit requests for specific pieces of information to government organisations which are then required to decide whether to release it. In its analysis, openDemocracy says central government departments are granting fewer requests than ever before. It says that the Cabinet Office, which is in charge of freedom of information policy, has one of the worst records on access to information. The Cabinet Office, and other public bodies, often cynically fail to respond to requests from the public in any way, according to openDemocracy. Whitehall departments are required to send to the clearing house requests that seek information about subjects deemed to be “sensitive.” It is unclear what constitutes a “sensitive” subject. The unit also asks to see requests that have been submitted to multiple departments but are asking for the same information from each. The Cabinet Office has said this allows the government to monitor requests that may cost too much public money to answer, as permitted under the act. Each day, the clearing house circulates advice on how to answer these requests to Whitehall departments. Whitehall sources confirm that these requests have been submitted by journalists from the Guardian, the BBC, the Times, the Mirror, the Sun and the Daily Telegraph. Other requests have been submitted by campaigners such as Privacy International, which opposes government surveillance. Routinely, the unit tells Whitehall departments “we would like to see drafts” or “send draft responses to clearing house.” The Cabinet Office, which is responsible for running the prime minister’s office and supporting his cabinet, has said individual departments can ultimately decide what information to disclose. David Davis, the former Conservative minister, said:

The whole purpose of the Freedom of Information Act was to increase transparency and accountability of government. This clearing house is certainly against the spirit of that act – and probably the letter, too. Ministers should explain to the House of Commons precisely why they continue with this set-up in view of the fact that it is contradictory to the whole purpose of freedom of information.

In a statement, the Cabinet Office said:

The Cabinet Office plays an important role through the FOI Clearing House of ensuring there is a standard approach across government in the way we consider and respond to requests. The government is committed to its transparency agenda, routinely discloses information beyond its obligations under the FOI Act, and is releasing more proactive publications than before. With increasing transparency, we receive increasingly more complex requests under freedom of information. We must balance the public need to make information available with our duty to protect sensitive information and ensure national security.

UK government blacklisted journalists over freedom of information requests
Ian Cobain, Middle East Eye, Nov 24 2020

The UK government has created a potentially unlawful “blacklist” of the names of people seeking information under the country’s Freedom of Information Act, two investigative journalists have discovered. The names of charity workers, campaigners and journalists have been entered on the list without their knowledge, in an apparent breach of the UK’s privacy laws. Journalists working for the AP, BBC, Guardian and other news organisations are known to have been placed on the list along with people working for Friends of the Earth, Privacy International and other NGOs. It is thought that none of them have been informed. The discovery of the blacklist comes at a time when the British government is mounting efforts to stem the release of information under the act. A recent survey conducted by the UK’s National Union of Journalists found that its members now believe the government’s increasing disregard of transparency laws is a greater impediment to their work than the UK’s notoriously stringent libel laws. British government departments are granting fewer and refusing more Freedom of Information Act requests than at any time in the law’s 15-year history.

The blacklist was discovered by Jenna Corderoy and Peter Geoghegan, two journalists with the openDemocracy website. It is maintained within a unit known as the Clearing House, located within the Cabinet Office, the department that supports the prime minister and co-ordinates the work of government. The Cabinet Office initially refused to disclose the list, but the Information Commissioner’s Office, which oversees the implementation of the act, ordered it to do so. It includes applicants’ names, which were redacted before the list was handed over, along with the names of their employers, and details of their work. It is still refusing to disclose documentation relating to the list, including advice that it offers to other British government departments. It is planning to appeal to the courts against the Information Commissioner’s ruling that more details of the Clearing House operations should be made public. Requests for information under the Freedom of Information Act are supposed to be “applicant blind,” with government departments not discriminating for or against individuals who make them. The court that hears the Cabinet Office’s appeal may also rule on the legality of the Clearing House operations, with some privacy law experts believing it may be declared unlawful. Jon Baines, a data protection advisor at London law firm Mishcon de Reya said:

I am far from assured that the operation of the Clearing House complies with data protection law. It appears to use a round robin list by which FOI requesters’ names are circulated around all government departments. Requesters would not normally have a reasonable expectation that their details would be so widely disclosed, and in most cases it does not appear that they are informed that this will happen. Moreover, I suspect that most requesters would object to the breadth of this disclosure. Data protection law requires, as a basic principle, that personal data be processed fairly and in a transparent manner. On the evidence that I have seen, I do not feel that the Clearing House meets these requirements.

Gavin Freeguard, head of data and transparency at the Institute for Government, said:

With delayed responses, more requests being rejected than ever before and these reports of a Clearing House it feels like we’re having to fight for the right to information all over again. And all this at a time when it’s vital for politicians, the press and the public to be able to scrutinise government.

A number of British politicians also expressed alarm at the discovery of the Clearing House. David Davis, a Conservative former cabinet minister, said:

The whole purpose of the Freedom of Information Act was to increase transparency and accountability of government. To that explicit end, all requests are legally required to be treated independent of who the applicant is. This Clearing House is certainly against the spirit of that act, and probably the letter too. Ministers should explain to the House of Commons precisely why they continue with this set-up in view of the fact that it is contradictory to the whole purpose of freedom of information.

Helen Hayes, shadow Cabinet Office minister with the opposition Labour party, said:

This is extremely troubling. If the Cabinet Office is interfering in FOI requests and seeking to work around the requirements of the Act by blacklisting journalists, it is a grave threat to our values and transparency in our democracy.

The government minister heading the Cabinet Office, Michael Gove, has a history of attempting to undermine the effectiveness of the UK’s Freedom of Information Act. In 2010, while education secretary, he was discovered to be sending emails through an account in the name of his wife. His advisors called this the “Mrs Blurt account.” Gove’s officials at the education department systematically destroyed correspondence, and his closest political advisor, Dominic Cummings, told colleagues that he would answer only those emails that came from personal accounts. The Information Commissioner concluded that the department should be subject to special monitoring to ensure that it complied with the law.

UK government running ‘Orwellian’ unit to block release of ‘sensitive’ information
Peter Geoghegan, Jenna Corderoy, Open Democracy, Nov 23 2020

The British government has been accused of running an ‘Orwellian’ unit in Michael Gove’s office that instructs Whitehall departments on how to respond to Freedom of Information requests and shares personal information about journalists, openDemocracy can reveal today. Experts warn that the practice could be breaking the law, and openDemocracy is now working with the law firm Leigh Day on a legal bid to force Gove’s Cabinet Office to reveal full details of how its secretive ‘Clearing House’ unit operates. Freedom of Information (FOI) requests are supposed to be ‘applicant-blind’: meaning who makes the request should not matter. But it now emerges that government departments and non-departmental public bodies have been referring ‘sensitive’ FOI requests from journalists and researchers to the Clearing House in Gove’s department in a move described by a shadow cabinet minister as “blacklisting.”

This secretive FOI unit gives advice to other departments “to protect sensitive information,” and collates lists of journalists with details about their work. These lists have included journalists from openDemocracy, The Guardian, The Times, the BBC and many more, as well as researchers from Privacy International and Big Brother Watch and elsewhere. The unit has also signed off on FOI responses from other Whitehall departments, effectively centralising control within Gove’s office over what information is released to the public. Conservative MP David Davis called on government ministers to “explain to the House of Commons precisely why they continue” with a Clearing House operation that is “certainly against the spirit of that Act, and probably the letter too.” Labour shadow Cabinet Office minister Helen Hayes said:

This is extremely troubling. If the cabinet office is interfering in FOI requests and seeking to work around the requirements of the Act by blacklisting journalists, it is a grave threat to our values and transparency in our democracy.

Details of the Clearing House are revealed in a new report on Freedom of Information published today by openDemocracy. ‘Art of Darkness’ finds that the UK government has granted fewer and rejected more FOI requests than ever before, with standards falling particularly sharply in the most important Whitehall departments.

The Clearing House circulates a daily list of FOI requests to up to 70 departments and public bodies that contains details of all requests that it is advising on. This list covers FOI requests about “sensitive subjects” as well as ‘round robin’ requests made to multiple government departments.

Press freedom campaigners have sharply criticised the Clearing House operation and have called for full transparency. Michelle Stanistreet, NUJ general secretary, said:

The existence of this clearing house in the Cabinet Office is positively Orwellian. It poses serious questions about the government’s approach to access to information, its attitude to the public’s right to know and the collation of journalists’ personal information.

Jon Baines, a data protection expert at the law firm Mischon de Reya and chair of the National Association of Data Protection Officers, said:

I am far from assured that the operation of the Clearing House complies with data protection law. Data protection law requires, as a basic principle, that personal data be processed fairly and in a transparent manner. On the evidence that I have seen, I do not feel that the Clearing House meets these requirements.

The new report published by openDemocracy paints a disturbing picture of the state of Freedom of Information in Britain. In 2019, central UK government departments granted fewer and rejected more FOI requests than ever before. In the last five years, the Cabinet Office, as well as the Treasury, Foreign Office and Home Office, have all withheld more requests than they granted, according to the report. The Cabinet Office, which is the government department responsible for Freedom of Information policy, has one of the worst records on access to information. Last year, Michael Gove’s department was the branch of Whitehall most likely to have its decisions referred to the Information Commissioner’s Office, which regulates information rights in the UK.

New analysis by openDemocracy also shows that some public bodies are cynically undermining requests for information by failing to respond to requests in any way – a tactic described in openDemocracy’s report as ‘stonewalling’. Decision Notices, which are issued by the Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) about stonewalling, have increased by 70% in the last five years. Again, the Cabinet Office is a repeat offender. The study reveals that the ICO fully or partially upheld complaints about mishandled requests in 48% of its Decision Notices last year: the highest proportion in five years. Yet the ICO’s capacity to investigate complaints and enforce the Act is diminishing. The regulator has seen its budget cut by 41 per cent over the last decade, while its complaint caseload has increased by 46 per cent in the same period. The ICO’s enforcement may also be hampered by its governance structure, under which it is accountable on FOI to the Cabinet Office. Michael Gove’s department also is involved in setting the ICO’s annual budget. Responding to openDemocracy’s questions about the Clearing House, a government spokesperson said:

The Cabinet Office plays an important role through the FOI Clearing House of ensuring there is a standard approach across government in the way we consider and respond to requests. With increasing transparency, we receive increasingly more complex requests under Freedom of Information. We must balance the public need to make information available with our duty to protect sensitive information and ensure national security.

openDemocracy has had first hand experience of how the Clearing House slows down or obstructs FOI requests, and profiles journalists, on a number of different occasions. In Feb 2020, openDemocracy journalist Jenna Corderoy sent an FOI request to the Ministry of Defence about meetings with short-lived special advisor Andrew Sabisky. The MoD subsequently complained internally:

Due to the time spent in getting an approval from Clearing House, the FOI requestor has put in a complaint to the ICO.

The MoD refused the Sabisky request after 196 days, which is more than six times the normal limit for responding to an FOI request. Separately, when Corderoy sent a Freedom of Information request to the Attorney General’s Office, staff at the office wrote in internal emails:

Just flagging that Jenna Corderoy is a journalist … once the response is confirmed, I’ll just need [redacted] to sign off on this before it goes out, since Jenna Corderoy is a reporter for openDemocracy.

Today’s findings on the operation of the Clearing House add to mounting questions about the British government’s approach to transparency and press freedom. Earlier this year, Number 10 was heavily criticised after it barred openDemocracy from COVID press briefings. The Ministry of Defence was also subsequently accused of ‘blacklisting’ DeclassifiedUK after the department refused to provide comment to the investigative website. Edin Omanovic, advocacy director at Privacy International saidL

The point of Freedom of Information is to access information from individual authorities themselves, not from a centralised body within the Cabinet Office. The Cabinet Office should not be interfering.

Silke Carlo, director of Big Brother Watch said:

We’re appalled that such important information rights have been so disrespected by the government. The centralisation of difficult FOIs, the secrecy of this list and the fact that our names have been circulated around Whitehall is seriously chilling. This is a shameful reflection on the government’s attitude towards transparency.

openDemocracy first asked for copies of the Clearing House lists back in 2018. The Cabinet Office refused this Freedom of Information request but, 23 months later, in July 2020 the ICO finally decided that the lists, including the advice that the Cabinet Office provides on dealing with FOI requests, should be disclosed to the public. While the Cabinet Office eventually disclosed some material from the Clearing House list, it is keeping its advice to departments secret and is appealing against the ICO’s decision. openDemocracy, represented by the law firm Leigh Day, will now be submitting evidence to an information tribunal hearing to determine whether this information about the Clearing House should be made public. According to ICO guidance, a public authority can only look up a requester’s identity if the request is repeated, potentially a vexatious request, or whether the cost of two or more requests made by the requester can be aggregated under FOI.

The ICO has been aware of the Clearing House’s existence for some time. In 2005, the Clearing House’s annual budget was reported to be £700k. The Clearing House was initially housed within the then Dept for Constitutional Affairs then later moved to the Ministry of Justice. In 2015, when the Cabinet Office took responsibility for freedom of information policy, the department also took over the Clearing House, despite concerns about its operation. The Cabinet Office has previously advertised roles to work in the Cabinet Office’s Clearing House. Specific responsibilities listed for the positions included “creating a weekly FOI tracker of new cases and releases” and “forwarding drafts for clearance, reverting to departments with advice and negotiating redrafted responses.” But openDemocracy’s findings and the upcoming tribunal case have highlighted fresh and pressing concerns, including among rights advocates who campaigned for the initial, groundbreaking Freedom of Information legislation more than 15 years ago. The Campaign for Freedom of Information’s Katherine Gundersen has said:

It’s time the clearing house was subjected to proper scrutiny.

Meanwhile Gavin Freeguard, head of data and transparency at the Institute for Government, said that, 15 years after the Freedom of Information act came into effect, it was not right that the public was still having to fight to access information. Freeguard said:

With delayed responses, more requests being rejected than ever before and these reports of a Clearing House it feels like we’re having to fight for the right to information all over again. And all this at a time when it’s vital for politicians, the press and the public to be able to scrutinise government.

The Cabinet Office organises quarterly engagement meetings and biannual information rights forums with other government departments. openDemocracy sent an FOI requesting materials from these meetings and forums, but the request was denied.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.