Tory leadership frontrunners Liz Truss and Rishi Sunak have been accused of trying to cover up “basic facts” about their work in government by refusing to publish details of their meetings.
An officer at the Department for International Trade (DIT), where Truss was secretary of state during the pandemic, said openDemocracy’s request for her official diary was “vexatious” and a “fishing expedition”, and that it would not be in the public interest to know who Truss met and spoke to in her official capacity.
The Treasury repeated the “vexatious” line, and said releasing Sunak’s diaries from his time as chancellor would cost too much.
openDemocracy has been requesting copies of ministerial diaries kept during the pandemic under Freedom of Information rules. The vast majority of requests were rejected, with only former foreign secretary Dominic Raab, former education secretary Gavin Williamson, and attorney general Suella Braverman releasing heavily redacted excerpts.
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The full logs would reveal ministers’ calls, meetings and visits, and could give a crucial insight into who was lobbying Boris Johnson’s government while its members shaped the country’s response to COVID. More than 200,000 Brits have died after contracting the disease, meaning the UK has the seventh-worst death rate in the world.
Labour’s Emily Thornberry MP said of the refusals: “There is a culture of cover-up and deceit across the whole of this government that will not be ended simply by replacing Boris Johnson, and the attempts to hide basic facts about the meetings that ministers have held shows how deeply that culture is ingrained.
“Any leadership candidate promising a new approach to government needs to start by coming clean about their finances, their use of official resources, and the external organisations influencing their policies. Providing details of their ministerial meetings is the bare minimum we should expect.”
More than 1,000 people have signed our petition calling for the diaries to be released.
Under transparency rules, ministers must publicly declare ‘official’ meetings with external organisations that relate to government business. But these declarations, which are separate from ministerial diaries, sometimes omit meetings. Last year, it emerged that former health minister Lord Bethell had a series of meetings in April 2020 with companies that later received millions of pounds in government COVID contracts. These meetings were not recorded in official transparency releases.
And the distinction between ‘official’, ‘political’ and ‘personal’ meetings is often blurred.
In August 2020, Truss was accused of hiding meetings with a pro-Brexit think tank, reclassifying them as personal discussions and removing them from the transparency releases. After an outcry, she added the meetings back in.
Earlier this year, DIT faced questions over its failure to disclose that Truss and three officials had spent more than £2,000 of public money on subsistence and expenses during a three-night trip to Tokyo.
Labour MP John McDonnell said: “Knowing who a minister is meeting and what is filling their diaries is critically important to openness and transparency in government. It’s just another way of discovering who has the opportunity to influence government decisions and what the ministers are spending their time on.”
Last week, openDemocracy used the diaries that were disclosed to reveal that former foreign secretary Dominic Raab had cut his workload by around two-thirds in the days before last year’s Afghanistan crisis, and that former education secretary Gavin Williamson’s diary contained meetings and phone calls with businesses that had not been included in previously published government disclosures.
Katherine Gundersen of the Campaign for Freedom of Information said: “The knee jerk reaction of government is always to say no to these requests. Where ministerial diaries have been disclosed under FOIA it has taken years of struggle, multiple appeals and tens of thousands of pounds of the public’s money spent trying to keep the public in the dark.”
Ben Worthy, lecturer in politics at Birkbeck College, University of London, said other countries – including New Zealand – release diaries “regularly and without problems”. “Having access to ministerial diaries is a vital part of creating proper government transparency,” he added. “They are an important means of establishing facts, accessing data about lobbying and making ministers accountable for their actions.”