UK Politics

Red tape and a three year FOI battle with Cabinet Office

Red Tape graphic Image copyright Eyewire

Journalism is, at least in part, the art of delivering new information in a timely manner.

In which case, I have to admit a failure.

It's important to point out that I wasn't wholly to blame, what with the government taking me to court and all that.

Nonetheless what I've finally learned isn't a story now - and probably wouldn't have been when I thought it might have been.

Let me explain....

Four years ago, I asked what I thought was an entirely innocent question using Freedom of Information laws.

Back in 2010, the coalition government were trumpeting a new red tape-busting cabinet panel, the Reducing Regulation Committee. I suspected that it was all froth and no action, so in 2012 I asked how often they had met since the committee's creation.

Twenty working days later, I thought, I'd get a number closely resembling one, namely the original meeting. How wrong I was, on both fronts.

The Cabinet Office, bored rigid I can only assume, decided to refuse my request on the basis that disclosing the number would impinge on cabinet collective decision-making. Balderdash I thought, or some other word beginning with B.

I therefore appealed, first to the Cabinet Office's own system (turned down) and then to the Information Commissioner's Office. Merry hell ensued. The ICO found in my favour, the Cabinet Office appealed, lost, appealed again, won, the ICO appealed for me, won, etc. Back and forth it went for three years. At one point, the government called in the fearsome-sounding "Treasury Devil", the so-called Star of the Bar, James Eadie QC, to argue their case.

Every few months a kindly solicitor at the ICO's office would email me with the latest twist in a story I had long lost interest in beyond knowing the indefatigable team at the ICO's office were sticking to their guns.

In November, word reached me that the end was nigh. A hapless Cabinet Office official was roundly condemned by a tribunal, who described her evidence as evasive and disingenuous.

Despite my increasing confidence that I'd get my answer, it was still something of a miracle to receive the response from the Cabinet Office on the Friday just before Christmas.

I'm now in a position to exclusively reveal to you, dear reader, that between 2010 and 2012, the Reducing Regulation Committee met on a total of 13 occasions.

You read it here first. Eventually.

Ministers are currently pondering whether to put restrictions on the Freedom of Information Act. In the meantime, how much it cost in legal fees to refuse my request for three years will be the subject of my next FOI request.