UK government spent half a million pounds on lawyers to fight FOI disclosures

Exclusive: Government accused of ‘wasting time and taxpayers’ money’ after spending heavily on legal challenges to prevent Freedom of Information releases

Jenna Corderoy www.opendemocracy.net

The UK government has spent at least half a million pounds on legal fees trying to prevent the release of information under Freedom of Information (FOI) legislation over the last five years, openDemocracy can reveal.

At least six government departments spent heavily on legal challenges to decisions from the information regulator, the Information Commissioner’s Office, to release information in response to FOI requests.

The Department of Health and Social Care spent almost half a million pounds on legal costs challenging decisions from the ICO that they must release information FOI, including spending more than £129,000 fighting on a single case, to try and stop the release of ministerial diaries. Eventually, a judge ruled that most of the information should be released, against the wishes of the government.

Elsewhere, the Department for Work and Pensions launched three appeals against ICO decisions since 2018, spending more than £80,000, while the Department for Education has racked up a bill of more than £52,000.

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The fees included outside counsel as well as the cost of lawyers from the Government’s Legal Department. Some of the cases are still on going but in most the government was ultimately forced to release the information.

Commenting on openDemocracy’s findings, Duncan Hames, director of policy at Transparency International UK, said: “These figures will no doubt come as a shock to taxpayers who have effectively bankrolled these attempts to obstruct the public’s right to know.

“The government should stop wasting time and taxpayer money opposing legitimate freedom of information requests and do what it’s required to by the law,” he added.

I expect that for the government, spending £20,000 to make a journalist give up is good value

The Department of Health and Social Care (DHSC) spent £13,000 trying to avoid having to disclose the register of interests of its special advisers to The Times. 

In another case, DHSC spent £20,000 trying to stop journalist Sid Ryan from obtaining information about fire safety in hospitals. Ryan was told his Freedom of Information request was “vexatious”, but a tribunal disagreed and ruled against the government.

The tribunal recognised Ryan’s work as having serious purpose and value. But during the appeal, a witness for the Department of Health said: “The department’s view (which I share) is that Mr Ryan is trying to prove a conspiracy theory of his own.” It was suggested that the department should apologise to Ryan for making that remark.

Ryan left journalism shortly after the tribunal. He told openDemocracy: “The process was so slow, so physically and mentally draining for the requester and to be branded as vexatious and a conspiracy theorist after all that work was deeply upsetting.

“For me, that whole process was a complete waste of time. But I expect that from the government’s perspective, spending £20,000 to make an investigative journalist give up is very good value for money.”

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The Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government spent £38,950 trying to block a request from another journalist, who had asked to see copies of official ministerial diaries. The ICO ruled that the information should have been released, but the department appealed to the tribunal.

The appeal was later dismissed, and internal communications obtained by The Guardian revealed how the government knew it had little chance of succeeding.

Other government departments were unable to tell openDemocracy how much they had spent on appeals, claiming that it would cost too much to investigate and provide figures. This includes the Cabinet Office, which runs a controversial Clearing House unit that vets FOI responses from across government.

News of the scale of government spending to avoid transparency comes ahead of a parliamentary inquiry into Freedom of Information launched in the wake of openDemocracy’s revelations about the Clearing House.

openDemocracy went to court after the Cabinet Office appealed against the ICO’s ruling that it should disclose the advice the Clearing House gives to other government departments

openDemocracy also asked for how much the government had spent on fighting the ICO’s ruling, only to be told that final invoicing costs have not yet been confirmed.

Details of the scale of government spending to prevent FOI disclosure come as a new poll for openDemocracy found that seven in ten UK adults were concerned by the sharp fall in FOI responses across government departments.

Views on government transparency are shared across the political spectrum, with 83% of Conservative voters and 76% of Labour voters agreeing that it is important for democracy, according the poll, which was carried out by SavantaComRes.

‘Opposition for the sake of it’

Author Andrew Lownie has spent four years and £250,000 fighting for the release of Lord Mountbatten’s diaries, after his attempts were blocked by Southampton University, which owns the archive, and the Cabinet Office. Lownie said the government seemed to have a policy of opposing transparency.

“If the government directed the money they spend on frustrating FOI requests on actually assessing and releasing material then there might be greater confidence in FOI,” he told openDemocracy.

“The policy seems to be opposition for the sake of it, even on files which pose no threat to security or data protection.

“The Cabinet Office and Southampton University have consistently refused to say how much they have spent on my fight to see the Mountbatten diaries and letters, beyond Southampton admitting to £33,000 just on a QC for the case management hearings.

The policy seems to be opposition for the sake of it, even on files which pose no threat to security

“Given I’ve spent £250,000 on subsidised rates with a young barrister and they have deployed very expensive QCs in a double defence, it probably runs to double that – all for material which should never have been closed in the first place and is innocuous. Might that money not be better spent on the NHS?”

The government said it was “committed to being open and transparent”, but needed to “balance the need of making information available with our duty to protect sensitive information”.

A spokesperson said: “Just like any other public authority, under the FOI Act the government has a right to appeal ICO rulings and set out our position when we feel there is a need to protect particularly sensitive information, including related to national security and personal data.

“We routinely disclose information beyond our obligations under the FOI Act, and are releasing more proactive publications than ever before.”

Local government working together to help refugees

It is said that the greatest curse of the Chinese philosopher, Confucius, was to say to his enemies, “may you live in interesting times”. This is pretty much what 2021 so far feels like to a British citizen today.

Paul Arnott www.sidmouthherald.co.uk 

Understandably, we don’t like to wear a hair shirt every day, but when this year comes to be summarised on New Year’s Eve it will be impossible for commentators not to note the withdrawal of the British from Afghanistan, or the manifest lack of preparation the Conservative government had made to protect the lives and interests of those Afghans who had fought against the Taliban insurgency alongside us.

Boris Johnson will hope that with the sacrifice of the now ex-Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab, political patron of East Devon’s MP Simon Jupp, the story can “move on”. Mistakes made, lessons learned, and all that old flannel.

This cold attitude, thank heavens, does not take into account the innate sense of justice and kindness present in many millions of British people, who do not judge everything by its price or what a series of actions can do for them. As testimony to this, since the chaotic departure from Kabul, I have been inundated with offers from good people to provide homes for refugees. And this is where the cynical Confucius got it wrong; it’s not about being cursed by having to live in “interesting times” but how individually and collectively we respond to them.

For that reason, I feel the people of Exmouth and East Devon should take great pride that last weekend Exmouth received 60 Afghan refugees – on a temporary basis it is important to add – who are now lodged in a hotel booked by central government. This is one part of government making up for the selfish idiocy of another, and is to be welcomed.

The refugees are 60 people in 12 family groups. There are 28 children under 12, with 37 under 18. There are quite a few young parents, and none are older than 57. There is one disabled child, and fortunately there are eight fluent English speakers who have volunteered to translate. Of the total, six families already have close links to families in the UK and this will have implications for resettlement when offering more permanent accommodation.

So far, local people – bar the usual keyboard warrior best left in their own shavings – have been nothing but welcoming. And in particular here I would like to fly the flag for local government, which in this case has been a magnificent and multi-agency response including Devon County Council, East Devon District Council and Exmouth Town Council. All these are democratically elected authorities, and you pay for them through various chunks of your annual council tax.

They have risen to the occasion and I can report to you that they have responded with extraordinary speed. Matters like this are profoundly complex. We need to think of clothing, medical help, a small amount of financial assistance, catering, and child welfare – just some of the many matters which need daily attention.

And then there is the further assessment of need, and where these people would like to live. As I said above, some already have connections in the UK, and all previous examples of this kind of inward migration prove that such refugees go on to be productive, tax-paying members of the local communities. I have no doubt that from a local government, national health and policing perspective all that can conceivably be done is being done now.

Yet we all know that at times of fear like this for these unfortunate Afghan people the hand of friendship means as much as material help, and so I applaud Exmouth mayor, Cllr Steve Gazzard, and

other local councillors like Eileen Wragg and Joe Whibley who have got themselves down to the hotel as fast as possible and uttered that crucial word: WELCOME.

Ambulances waited 67,000 hours (7+ years) at Devon and Cornwall hospitals

Ambulances have waited for almost 67,000 hours – more than seven years – outside the region’s three main hospitals in the past two and a half years, a Freedom of Information request has revealed.

Olivier Vergnault www.devonlive.com

According to figures obtained from the South Western Ambulance Service NHS Foundation Trust (SWASFT), ambulances crews, and therefore patients, have had to wait a total of 26,448 hours outside the Royal Cornwall Hospital at Treliske in Truro between January 1, 2019, and June 30, 2021.

Over the same period of time, ambulances had to wait a combined total of 27,120 hours outside A&E at Derriford Hospital in Plymouth and 13,425 hours outside the emergency department at the Royal Devon and Exeter Hospital in Exeter. Converted into days, these figures equate to 1,102 days (three years), 1,130 days (just above three years) and 560 days (one and a half years) respectively.

The figures mean that ambulances crews have spent a combined total of more than seven years waiting outside Devon and Cornwall’s three main hospitals in the past two and a half years, up to the end of June 2021, before being able to discharge their patients.

The figures also show that ambulances waited almost 24,000 hours outside the three hospitals in the first six months of 2021 alone – almost the same at the total for the whole of last year.

Ambulances and crews tied up outside the region’s hospitals are unable to attend other incidents, even if they might be more urgent.

In a joint statement, all three hospital trusts apologised for patients having to wait longer to get into emergency departments and insisted investment was taking place across Devon and Cornwall to alleviate the pressure by creating extra capacity, with new theatres and diagnostic facilities in Plymouth and at the former NHS Nightingale hospital in Exeter and a new ward unit under construction at Treliske.

The three trusts say they are also encouraging people to embark on careers in care and trying to recruit more hospital staff, but also have to ensure their staff are not overworked so they can do their jobs properly and are looked after.

A lack of beds at the region’s hospitals, underfunding in the NHS and hospitals in general and the lack of a cohesive social and health care programme, which would allow for so called ‘bed-blockers’ to be released and cared for in the community when they no longer need hospital care, have all been blamed over the years for increasing ambulance waiting times.

Peter Levin, from the watchdog West Cornwall Healthwatch, said many patients used to be discharged from acute hospitals to recover in community hospitals, but these had been closed down.

“The acute hospitals say it’s not their job to provide rehabilitation and recovery facilities,” Dr Levin said. “They do exist in Cornwall but they are in community hospitals, and NHS Kernow has made it its mission to close such beds. We’ve already lost the only two community hospitals in Penwith. Two more – Fowey and Saltash – are on the way. That’s 40 beds gone, with some residents discharged from Treliske being sent to the other end of the county as a result.

“What is needed is ‘joined-up thinking’ that covers a patient’s entire journey from admission to hospital through to recovery and rehabilitation. It is sadly absent at present.”

In August health and care leaders issued a joint letter describing “ongoing extreme surge in demand”, which included 700 people in need of care and support that was currently unavailable in Cornwall and the Isles of Scilly.

The letter said more than 20 care homes were closed due to Covid-19, while more than 400 people had visited the Royal Cornwall Hospital’s emergency department over the weekend of August 21 to 22; the NHS 111 telephone advice service had received more than 2,000 calls during the same period, and some patients with dementia were not being treated in locations designed for their needs.

Cherilyn Mackrory, the Conservative MP for Truro and Falmouth, said she was very much aware of the situation and insisted she had been in regular contact with both the Royal Cornwall Hospitals Trust and SWASFT to discuss what steps they were taking to ease these issues and how she could help.

“It’s been an unprecedented summer in Cornwall, with record visitors,” she said. “With that comes huge demand on our NHS – particularly on the emergency department at Treliske. We’ve all seen the stories and the pictures of the ambulances queued up outside. This is not an ideal situation and to any of you who have had to wait for an ambulance, I can only apologise.

“There is a lot of hard work going on to address this. The ambulance queues, in particular, are exacerbated by Covid restrictions at the hospital, with people not being allowed to wait in corridors and therefore having to stay with ambulances, therefore causing further delays and backlogs both at the hospital itself and also with the ambulance service.

“Obviously another ongoing issue is – much as I don’t like the term – so-called ‘bed-blocking’, with people who are otherwise able to leave the hospital being kept in because of the lack of social care plans to get them home.

“This is currently being addressed by the new administration at Cornwall Council on a local level, but I would also be remiss in not commenting on the recent changes announced by the Prime Minister, unprecedented as they are, which will put a considerable boost into our health and social care system.”

A SWASFT spokesman said: “NHS services across the South West, including our ambulance trust, have been under significant pressure during the Covid-19 pandemic and especially this summer.

“We work closely with our hospital partners to manage the issue of handover delays at hospital emergency departments, so that our crews can respond to the next patient as quickly as possible.

“We treat around half of our patients over the phone or at the scene of incidents, without needing to take them to hospital. We provide clinical care to our patients until they are handed over to hospital staff, and offer welfare support to our colleagues at various hospitals in our region.”

The crisis has highlighted the lack of a holistic approach to health and social care, meaning many patients who may be medically fit to leave hospital are unable to do so because there is not enough social care provision in the community.

Only last week, it was revealed that there were 150 so-called ‘bed-blockers’ at Treliske.

Anne Thomas, chief executive of Cornwall Care, which runs 16 care and nursing homes in the county, said her industry was acutely aware of the problem.

“We are working hard with all social care and voluntary providers in Cornwall to help get people home from hospital”, she said. “An emergency ‘care bunker’ team has been set up for that purpose this week, which includes both care and voluntary sector teams working together.

“Our aim is to give people the support they need in their own homes, and to do that effectively we’re using every resource possible – regardless of whether that comes from a range of different providers.

“We’re in the middle of a health and social care emergency, and working together is vital.”

The joint statement from all three hospital trusts added: “There are no easy answers to resolving these issues, which have increased since the start of the Covid pandemic.

“Patient safety is our number one priority and people are seen based on urgency and need.

“Emergency departments (EDs) are under extreme pressure due to the rising demand for services across the health and care system in Devon and Cornwall in recent years and patients are more unwell, meaning that more of the patients coming through our doors need to be admitted to hospital.

“Some patients come to our EDs with minor conditions which could be treated more quickly and effectively elsewhere.

“Care providers also have rising demand for their services and are experiencing significant pressures due to a shortfall of people wanting to work in the care sector, which can impact on the ability to discharge people with very complex needs promptly from hospital and free beds for people waiting to be admitted from ED.

“These issues have been further complicated throughout the pandemic by the need for additional infection prevention and control measures and the need to keep patients with Covid separate from others.”

The three hospital trusts and SWASFT all reiterated the same message, urging both residents and visitors not to call 999 unless it was a genuine, life-threatening emergency and to get themselves vaccinated against Covid.

Johnson’s staff knew he had a crush on me, says Jennifer Arcuri

The US businesswoman Jennifer Arcuri has claimed that officials in Boris Johnson’s office knew he had “crush” on her when he was mayor of London.

Matthew Weaver www.theguardian.com 

Arcuri also claimed that the mayor was aware she going on international trade missions approved by his promotional agency, London & Partners (L&P), despite claims from Johnson’s lawyers that he was not expecting her to attend the trips.

Giving evidence to members of the London Assembly via video link, Arcuri repeatedly said that the grants and access to L&P trips she gained between 2013 and 2014 had no connection to her friendship with the mayor.

Johnson made no mention of Arcuri in his declaration of interest as mayor, and when news of their alleged affair broke in 2019, he said there was no relationship to declare.

Arcuri’s evidence to the Assembly oversight committee suggested that the interest should have been declared.

Asked if the mayor’s office aware of this relationship, she said: “People knew that there was an interest of the mayor in me and that he had somewhat of a crush on me when we went to events. Everyone could see the dramatic difference of this man when I entered the room. People kind of assumed what they wanted. But there was never any discussion about any of this.”

Frequently referring to herself in third person she added: “They assumed whatever they wanted, it didn’t change the fact that Jennifer Arcuri was the most annoying, perseverant hustler. Even when they said no, I didn’t listen.”

The hearing was focused on lessons that could be learned for the future, as the committee has been advised it cannot investigate the conduct of former mayors.

When Arcuri was still a MBA student at London, she persuaded Johnson to launch her tech startup Innotech in April 2012 and he went on to speak at three more of the company’s events. She also secured £11,500 in sponsorship from L&P for two of these events and secured a place on L&P trade missions led by Johnson to the Far East, New York and Israel, despite initially being refused places and not meeting the agency’s criteria for a place.

Arcuri told the committee: “My relationship with the mayor or my non-relationship had really no bearing on my complete pursuit of London and my ability to build a business.” She added: “When you’re hustling something from nothing, especially with clocks ticking with me getting a visa, I have to be everywhere, find everyone, interested in London because ultimately that helps my events.”

Last year the Independent Office for Police Conduct (IOPC) decided against launching a criminal investigation into Johnson’s conduct surrounding Arcuri despite finding evidence that officials were influenced by the close relationship between the pair.

Lawyers for Johnson had told the IOPC that as mayor he was unaware that she was due to attend trade missions that he led. “If and when Ms Arcuri did attend any such events, our client was not previously expecting her to attend,” they said in an email.

Arcuri was asked if she told Johnson she was due to attend the trade missions. She said: “Yes. With New York I remember calling him specifically saying, ‘Look, you can fake it everywhere else, but they’ll eat you alive in New York. You can’t fake it.’

“The other discussion was before Tel Aviv, where I made sure to give him a mouthful about never connecting to public wifi.”

She added: “He wasn’t really a fan of technology at that time. I was [asking him] do you have a private VPN? Have you set up two-factor authentication? Don’t connect to free wifi. Has anyone trained you on any of this? I mean, those were the discussions on trade missions.

“He would oftentimes ask, ‘How was the trade mission, was it beneficial for you? And I would say, ‘Yes all is well.’ There would never be any kind discussion beyond that.”

Arcuri claimed that at one stage she was in the offices of L&P every other day. She also said she dealt with senior officials in Johnson’s office including Eddie Lister, then deputy mayor for policing, and Will Walden, the mayor’s head of communications.

She recalled that there was rumour at the time of the trip to Singapore and Malaysia in November 2014 that news of her relationship with Johnson was about to appear in the press. She said: “Maybe the day before the Malaysia trip, there was some talk of journalists seeding a story at City Hall, where there was going to be as some kind revelation of a relationship.”

Later, at the high commissioner’’s house in Singapore, she said she asked Walden if the story was going to run. “He said, don’t worry about it,” she said.

She added: “When the mayor did show up at the events I stayed back. This was not why I was there. I didn’t want to ask his permission.”

Covid ‘high alert’ warning as more than 100,000 pupils in England miss school

Headteachers say the government needs to be on “high alert” to curb school Covid outbreaks, after more than 100,000 children were absent with confirmed or suspected infections last week – the highest number for England during the pandemic.

Richard Adams www.theguardian.com 

The figures from the Department for Education showed that fewer than 92% of pupils were present in classrooms on 16 September, with 59,000 absent with confirmed cases of Covid-19 and a further 45,000 off with suspected cases.

In total, 122,000 children were absent from state schools for Covid-related reasons last week, including 16,000 marked off as isolating and another 2,000 “due to attendance restrictions being in place to manage an outbreak,” according to the DfE.

Paul Whiteman, general secretary of the National Association of Head Teachers, said: “These national figures mask some significant issues arising at a local level, and we already know of schools that are struggling to keep classes open due to outbreaks occurring.

“It is crucial that both central and local government are now on high alert and are ready to react quickly if and when cases rise rapidly or outbreaks occur. The next few weeks will be crucial.”

The 103,000 pupils with confirmed or suspected cases is higher than the number at the end of the last school year, a little more than two months ago. In mid-July the DfE said just 82,000 children were absent with Covid cases.

Secondary schools were the worst hit, with nearly one in every 100 pupils off with confirmed Covid cases. Including non-Covid absences, the overall absentee rate for secondary schools was 10%, twice as high as pre-pandemic absences.

One in every 100 teachers in all types of state schools were also absent with Covid last week.

The statistics are the first official signs of the spread of the virus within schools and colleges since the start of the new school year, when the use of preventive measures such as mask-wearing, social distancing and small group “bubbles” was halted by the DfE.

In July more than a million children were absent but that included 930,000 self-isolating because of classroom contacts. This year the DfE has ruled that children who are close contacts of confirmed or suspected cases do not need to self-isolate unless they also display symptoms.

Geoff Barton, general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders, said he was aware of schools where “significant numbers” of students were absent.

“We are hopeful that the vaccination programme for 12- to 15-year-olds will help to reduce this level of disruption. However, the government must also take more action to support schools and colleges,” Barton said.

“It should launch a public information campaign to encourage twice-weekly home testing among pupils in the appropriate age groups, provide funding for high-quality ventilation systems in schools and colleges, and commit to providing more support if onsite testing is directed under the contingency framework.”

Barton also urged the government to publish its plans for A-level and GCSE exams in spring, saying it was “extremely frustrating” that guidance had still not been issued.

Nadhim Zahawi, the new education secretary, said it was “fantastic” to see more than 91% of children back in the classroom, compared with 87% at the same time last year.

“That’s down to the hard work of teachers, support staff as well as families, whose efforts have been heroic in making sure children can get back to school safely,” Zahawi said.

“The rollout of the vaccine to those aged 12-15, which started this week, is another significant step in building the walls of protection from the virus across society.”

Kate Green, the shadow education secretary, said: “The Conservatives’ chaotic failure to plan ahead or to listen to Labour, parents and teachers and get ventilation and mitigations in place saw over 122,000 children out of school again last week. This is not good enough. The Conservatives have left schools in a mess; the new education secretary urgently needs to set this right.”