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Freedom of Information - an Inconvenient Truth
11 Jan, 2021

Have you tried recently to obtain your local authority’s Brexit Risk Assessment? Jo Pye has, and thinks that the impact of Brexit in January 2021 by now merited clarity, particularly, as to its effect on our own local communities. But apparently not so.

Following a quick search online, only a number of London local authorities such as Brent, Southwark, Enfield and Hammersmith and Fulham have felt it important enough to publish their Brexit Risk Assessments online. Outside London, the situation appears even worse with only a few, for example, Bristol City Council, being transparent and courageous enough to do so.

I simply wanted to know how my local community (Greenwich) would be impacted by any form of Brexit from 1 January 2021 and what my local council was preparing for. 

On 4 November 2020, I found an official website reference that gave me a form of wording I could use to email a Freedom of Information (FOI) request to my local Council.

I checked my Council’s website and found an email address for FOI requests and duly sent my request. If London City Hall itself thought it relevant, why not give it a try? The reply I got, exactly one month later, left me flabbergasted and extremely worried. It will probably have the same effect on you.

4 November 2020 – From me to my Council:

I am writing to you to request, under the Freedom of Information Act, copies of the following:

- First, any documents from this year (2020) produced by your local authority outlining planning or preparations for the upcoming exit of the United Kingdom from the European Union.

- Second, any risk registers or risk assessments that mention Britain's upcoming exit from the European Union made or used by this local authority in 2020.

2 December 2020 – From my council to me:

“The information you have requested is exempt in accordance with section 36(2) (b) of the Freedom of Information Act 2000 which states:-

(a) Information to which this section applies is exempt information if,:-

in the reasonable opinion of a qualified person, disclosure of the information under this Act—

(b) would, or would be likely to, inhibit—

(i) the free and frank provision of advice, or

(ii) the free and frank exchange of views for the purposes

of deliberation, or

(c) would otherwise prejudice, or would be likely otherwise to

prejudice, the effective conduct of public affairs.

It is in the reasonable opinion of the Council’s qualified person, disclosure of the information under this Act- (2)(b)(i) would, or would be likely to, inhibit the free and frank provision of advice, or 2(b) ii. the free and frank exchange of views for the purposes of deliberation or 2(c) would otherwise prejudice, or would be likely otherwise to prejudice, the effective conduct of public affairs.

The reasons are:-

Disclosure of the requested information would be likely to inhibit the ability of council officers and others to express themselves openly and honestly to explore unpopular options when providing advice or giving their views as part of the process of deliberation.

This is a live issue and disclosure of the requested information will inhibit free discussions in the future.

The Council needs a safe space to discuss live issues and reach decisions away from external interference and distraction.

The information identified within this request relates to internal and external discussions of a formal nature and releasing the information would inhibit the ability of the council to engage in full and frank discussions with council officers and others.

The release of this information would undermine the Council’s working relationship with other relevant parties which is dependent upon the ability of all parties involved communicating in an open and effective manner.

The Council and others must have confidence that they can share views with one another and that there is an opportunity to understand and, where appropriate, challenge issues presented to them.

Disclosure of the information would be likely to remove the space within which council officers and others are able to discuss options freely and frankly.  Key organisations would also be less likely in the future to co-operate in this way.

The Qualified person accepts that disclosure of this information would be of interest to the community.

The Council acknowledges there is a strong public interest in disclosure of information which would demonstrate that the relevant issues have been properly discussed and deliberated.

It is not unreasonable therefore for council officers to have the assurance that their views would remain confidential and not placed in the public domain.

Is it fear of political reprisal from Government purse-string holders? Or genuine fear of civil unrest? Or part of that pervading national intimidation that does not allow the ‘B-Word’ to be used or questioned by the BBC, the Trade Associations, the Trade Unions and - most worryingly - within our Parliament itself?

I want the truth, however inconvenient - I do not like being kept in the dark and being warned off my civic rights. Brexit has already damaged those enough. I shall be responding!

  • According to this article by OpenDemocracy, my suspicions are apparently well-founded - the darkness emanates from Government. See, in particular, “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 is vital for politicians, the press and the public to be able to scrutinise government.

Jo Pye
London4Europe and European Movement Greater London Regional Representative

London4Europe blogs are edited by Nick Hopkinson, Vice-Chair. Articles on this page reflect the views of the author and not necessarily of London4Europe.

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Andrew (Andy) Pye
published this page in Latest blogs 2021-01-11 17:26:14 +0000