Scrutiny of government ministers’ meetings with lobbyists has been boosted by the Open Access UK project from Transparency International UK, which integrates with our Freedom of Information service WhatDoTheyKnow.
The fact that meetings between ministers, and people or organisations outside of Government have taken place is published, as required by the Ministerial Code, but typically, few details are proactively released.
The Open Access UK service collates published declarations of meetings, and provides special links to WhatDoTheyKnow where users can find a pre-written Freedom of Information request for each meeting, asking for:
- The agenda
- The list of attendees, including details of any organisations they represented
- Copies of briefing notes and papers prepared in advance
- Notes or minutes recording what was discussed
- Any correspondence associated with the attendees, including messages sent to follow up on the meeting
The service covers almost 90,000 ministerial meetings which have taken place since 2012, and it’s being actively maintained, with 1,500 more meetings added last month.
To identify meetings of interest, searches can be carried out for the name of an organisation (such as a company, charity, union, or lobby group), minister, or by subject matter/policy area. Anyone interested in details of what happened at a meeting can request such information in public via WhatDoTheyKnow with a couple of clicks. You can also follow requests on any meeting, whether or not you are the person who submitted them.
It appears that meetings listed don’t only include physical ones, but online events and phone calls. Some detailed Government guidance on what should, and should not, be included in ministers’ transparency disclosures has been released via WhatDoTheyKnow (though the Government initially refused the request); more up-to date material also appears to be available, including a “pandemic-related update” which specifically covers remote meetings.
The service does not currently cover meetings with ministers’ special advisers or civil servants where ministers are not present themselves, but Transparency International UK are inviting contact from anyone who would like to fund expanding the scope of the service to cover such meetings.
Responses to requests
The service has been running for some time, so everyone can see examples of how requests made through it have been responded to.
There is a wide range of responses: in some cases the information sought has been substantively released promptly, while in other cases the responses have been less forthcoming.
As one would expect, the names of junior officials attending meetings, and involved in correspondence, are typically redacted. Often though, details of the substance of the matters discussed are also withheld. Exemptions commonly cited include those applying to “formulation of government policy” and “commercial interests”. Those exemptions are not absolute, but are subject to a public interest test: material should be released if the public interest in releasing it outweighs the interest in keeping it secret.
Public bodies are permitted to delay a response while they consider whether the public interest lies in disclosure or not. We are concerned about the impact that such delays have on the speed of responses: we have noted examples of such delays both in responses to these requests and elsewhere on our service.
We encourage requesters to ask for internal reviews if they are unhappy with the response to a request. 25% of internal reviews to UK central government departments result in the release of additional material, so asking for reconsideration is often worthwhile. We also provide advice on referring responses to the Information Commissioner, who is empowered to make decisions on whether information should be released or not.
Ten things we’ve spotted in responses
1. Prompt and informative
A recent response, issued on 15 January 2023, provides details of a meeting held on 30 June 2022 with the then Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy Kwasi Kwarteng MP.
The release reveals the questions that potential commercial investors were asking government ministers about the UK’s carbon capture, utilisation and storage plans and associated hydrogen production and transport networks.
2. Ministers’ political meetings
If a minister declares a meeting which was not arranged via their department, the department may know nothing more about it than what has been published, resulting in a “not held” response when information is requested.
One request for information on meetings held by Liz Truss MP as a minister at the Department for International Trade resulted in a response saying the department did not hold the requested information about some of the meetings in question. In that case there had been some controversy over whether the meetings in questions should be listed on the transparency logs at all. It appears that sometimes ministers may have met lobbyists but considered their meetings to be private, or political, rather than “ministerial”, so they don’t place them on the public register of meetings.
There has also been controversy over the disclosure of other ministerial meetings with representatives of companies, with arguments over whether ministers themselves, or their departments, are responsible for ensuring that the published register of meetings is complete and accurate.
3. A ministerial refusal
Under certain circumstances, Freedom of Information law gives ministers a role in determining whether information should be released or whether an exemption should be applied.
This appears particularly questionable when it comes to requests about ministerial meetings. An example can be seen in a response to a request about a meeting on 4 November 2020 between Baroness Barran, then the Minister for Civil Society at the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport, and the Good Faith Partnership. The civil servant responding states: “I have sought the reasonable opinion of a qualified person, a Minister of the Crown, and they have agreed to the application of the above exemptions”.
Presumably the minister involved in the meeting wasn’t the minister deciding what information to release about the meeting, but the latter is not identified.
4. An unimpressive response
The response to a request for details of a meeting on 4 March 2021 between Prime Minister Boris Johnson MP and PD Ports to discuss the TeesPort freeport bid rather cheekily pointed the requester to a couple of news articles about the meeting in question, and refused to release anything further.
5. A delayed response
A request for details of a meeting held on 23 February 2021 by Anne-Marie Trevelyan MP, then a minister at the Department for Business, Energy & Industrial Strategy, with the group Policy Exchange, to discuss energy and Net Zero received a slow response.
While information was eventually forthcoming, it took around four months, and no explanation for the delay was provided. The law requires FOI requests to be responded to promptly, and unless an extension is justified, within 20 working days. Shortly before this request was made the Information Commissioner had issued a practice direction to the department requiring them to improve the timeliness of their FOI responses.
6. No information held
The Department for Health and Social Care has said it holds none of the information requested in respect to a meeting between the then Health Secretary Matt Hancock MP and data analytics company Palantir on 8 October 2020.
Having initially refused the request, citing the exemption applying to “the formulation or development of government policy”, the DHSC eventually stated it held no information related to the request. They did not offer advice and assistance explaining why no information was held. Perhaps there is an error in the register, or this could be a case of a meeting organised without the department’s involvement.
The department also stated, without explanation, that it did not hold the attendance list, or minutes, of a meeting between Matt Hancock MP, Devenish Foods and Finnebrogue Foods held on 20 March 2019. That meeting, and disclosures related to it, have been the subject of a Guardian article.
7. Refusing to release the substance
When Prime Minister Rishi Sunak MP was Chancellor, the disclosure logs record that he met Barclays “to discuss Financial Services in the UK”.
While some ephemera related to the meeting was released, the substance was refused, on the basis of Freedom of Information Act exemptions covering commercial interests and the formulation of government policy.
8. Chancellor meeting the CEO of Google at the World Economic Forum, Davos
A response to a request for information relating to a meeting held on 22 January 2020 between the then Chancellor, Sajid Javid MP and the Google CEO at the World Economic Forum in Davos, resulted in the release of some redacted emails about the arrangements, but was light on substance.
Notably, a document which listed others with whom it was suggested Chancellor could meet at the event was heavily redacted, with all entries other than the one for the Google CEO removed.
There is no explanation beyond a reference to the personal information exemptions in FOI. Perhaps as the request wasn’t focused on other meetings it was deemed unfair to release information about them?
The meeting in question was described in the released material as “Pre-dinner drinks hosted by Sundar Pichai, Google CEO” and “Google invitation to Chancellor Javid to a private dinner at Davos”. Google stated: “We will bring together government and business leaders for a one-table conversation focused on the role that technology should play in investing responsibly for the future.”
The existence of a “readout of meetings”, a phrase used in many of these disclosures, and apparently civil service jargon for notes on what was said, is mentioned but not released.
If, as in this case, a meeting is described as a dinner or drinks, one might expect related hospitality disclosures, something that could be cross-checked on receipt of a response about the details of a meeting.
9. Slightly late, but detailed response
Another reasonably detailed response, issued a few days after the legal deadline, relates to a meeting Matt Hancock MP held while Health Secretary, on the medicinal use of cannabis.
This response includes slides shared at the meeting, follow-up correspondence and more.
10. Accessing archives deemed too expensive
The Home Office refused a request, made in 2022, for details of a meeting Theresa May MP held with Kier Starmer and Andy Burnham in 2016.
The cost limits exemption was cited, with the Home Office stating that accessing the archives would cost more than the £600 (24 hours of work) limit over which a request can be rejected.
As yet, requests have only been made in respect of a fraction of the meetings listed. We look forward to seeing many more requests being made via this system in the future.
One issue with the process of making requests after the release of information about ministerial meetings is that the disclosures are typically made many months after the meetings took place.
The relevance and newsworthiness of meetings often declines as time passes. Disclosures about more recent meetings would be of greater value.
One insidious consequence of delayed proactive publication of some information about meetings is that the exemption covering information intended for future publication can be used to refuse to release material about meetings in a timely manner. While the exemption is subject to a public interest test, promising to publish material eventually can frustrate efforts to obtain it now.
It would be better if ministers’ external meetings were disclosed promptly, and additional information, over and above what is currently routinely disclosed, was proactively published alongside the disclosure that the meeting took place.
A collaborative effort
A huge amount of work sits behind what we see here. Civil servants run the process of collating and publishing the information on ministerial meetings; much of the data was scraped and processed by the University of Oxford; and Transparency UK have worked to standardise the meeting data and present it on their project website.
The WhatDoTheyKnow team run the WhatDoTheyKnow service, keeping contact details for public bodies up-to-date, dealing with issues which arise with request and responses.
Public-spirited users of the Open Access UK service and WhatDoTheyKnow identify meetings of interest and submit requests. Officers in public bodies, in turn, respond to those requests for information.
Transparency International UK have published details of the large number of funders who have contributed to their work on this project; the funding includes public money distributed via the Economic and Social Research Council.
If the Government data released was more consistent and timely, less work would be required to scrutinise ministerial meetings and other aspects of the operation of government.
Integrating with WhatDoTheyKnow
If you want to integrate your service or campaign with WhatDoTheyKnow, see our previous article: Alaveteli for campaigners: How to create pre-written requests for your supporters.
We welcome contact from those working on, or considering, projects which work with WhatDoTheyKnow. We might be able to help in a variety of ways, for example via access to our Projects tool for crowdsourcing the analysis of FOI responses, or using our new Notes feature to bring people to your project from pages featuring requests that were made via it.
We look forward to seeing greater use of the Open Access UK tool, and other WhatDoTheyKnow integrations, which help people make informed and impactful requests for information.
Image credits: Liz Truss and Boris Johnson Number 10 CC by-nc-sa/2.0; Palantir Cory Doctorow CC by-sa/2.0; Sundar Pichai World Economic Forum, CC by-nc-sa/2.0; Cannabis Daniel Oberhaus via Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA 4.0