Brexit: Government advised public bodies how to refuse FOI requests around plans for no-deal

The government has been advising public bodies on how to avoid answering Freedom of Information (FOI) requests about no-deal Brexit planning, a leaked report has revealed. 

Using advice from the Department for Exiting the European Union (DExEU), a report marked “sensitive” which drawn up by the Kent Resilience Forum (KRF) and seen by The Independent, quotes tips on how to refuse to deal with requests about contingency planning using exemptions under FOI legislation.

A partnership made up of a number of organisations and agencies, including councils, police forces and other emergency services, the KRF is responsible for emergency planning and drawing up contingency plans to deal with crises. 

“We do not find that details of ‘no-deal’ planning should be disclosed,” the DExEU advice in its report stated. “Even if individual plans are complete, they make up part of the whole planning by the UK government to exit the EU and as such, we consider that disclosure would undermine the effective conduct of public affairs.”

DExEU also warned such FOI requests could disrupt no-deal planning “either by diverting resources to deal with resulting requests for action, public concern about proposals, or by prejudicing the work of government in this area”, according to the report first obtained by the Kent Messenger.

The department added: “We do not consider this to be in the public interest when the government’s clear intention is to achieve a deal and all government departments are supporting the government in working towards this outcome.”

Originally obtained by Kent Online the KRF report advised organisations in the county to “neither confirm nor deny” whether they hold details relating to preparations

It included a template letter authorities could use when rejecting potentially difficult questions about their readiness should Britain crash out of the European Union without agreeing terms on its future relationship with the bloc.

It advised local authorities not to even confirm or deny the existence of no-deal plans, over fears this “would in itself disclose sensitive or potentially damaging information”.

“If details of any specific plans or proposals are disclosed, or the existence or nonexistence of these plans, we consider that this would prejudice the effective conduct of public affairs by distracting the public authority from the delivery of its public duty,” it said. 

Katherine Gundersen, deputy director of the Campaign for Freedom of Information, warned government attempts to prevent public bodies responding to Brexit-related FOIs in fear of disclosing potentially adverse information could, in the long run, create greater problems.

“Trying to suppress details of Brexit planning will reduce scrutiny, increase the chances of problems not being properly dealt with and lead to even greater chaos if the plans ever have to be implemented,” she said.

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“In any case, the proposed FOI exemption is subject to a public interest test and it is very unlikely that the Information Commissioner would find that the public interest favours keeping the public in the dark about these momentous issues.”

The Freedom of Information Act was introduced in November 2000 to create a right for both individuals and private organisations to access certain details held by public bodies. 

Roughly 120,000 requests for information are made under the act each year, 60 per cent of which come from private citizens.

The Independent has launched its #FinalSay campaign to demand that voters are given a voice on the final Brexit deal.

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