Is the government deliberately breaking Freedom of Information rules?

Minister deleted text exchanges with David Cameron about Greensill scandal

Vaccines Minister Nadhim Zahawi
Vaccines Minister Nadhim Zahawi
(Image credit: Chris J Ratcliffe/Getty Images)

A journalist has declared that the Freedom of Information (FOI) Act is “dead” after a government department said it could not provide texts relating to the Greensill scandal because a cabinet minister deleted them.

The Times had submitted the FOI request to the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy requesting messages sent between Vaccines Minister Nadhim Zahawi and former prime minister David Cameron, relating to the latter’s lobbying on behalf of collapsed financier Greensill Capital.

However, the department responded by saying that “deleted information, including informal communications not viewed at the time as requiring official record keeping, is not information now held by the department”.

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The Times’ political reporter George Grylls tweeted that the response “confirms the FOI Act is dead”, adding: “Nadhim Zahawi deleted all his Greensill texts with David Cameron, government admits. So ministers are allowed to text lobbyists, delete their messages, and the [department] doesn’t care.”

Messages released to a select committee hearing into the lobbying scandal show that Cameron did in fact text Zahawi, at one point thanking him for being “v helpful” during his efforts to lobby the Treasury on behalf of Greensill.

“Hi there. Well done with keeping going in the midst of all this. You’ve been v solid on the media. Lex Greensill – who I work with – says you are being v helpful over HMT and CBILS [coronavirus business interruption loan scheme] programme,” Cameron wrote.

He then asked Zahawi if it would “help if I pinged a message to Richard Sharp”, a former banker who is now an adviser to Chancellor Rishi Sunak.

The messages disclosed to the select committee did not show Zahawi’s reply. However, Cameron later sent a second message saying: “Ta. Will do. Can you send me his contact details? Keep going! D.”

The texts between Zahawi and Cameron are not the first time the government has come under scrutiny for trying to dodge disclosing information requested under the act passed in 2000 that grants “right of access” to information held by public authorities.

In February more than a dozen editors of the country’s biggest newspapers signed an open letter calling “for MPs to urgently investigate the British government’s handling of Freedom of Information (FOI) requests”, OpenDemocracy reports.

The letter followed the news site revealing “details of a secretive unit inside Michael Gove’s Cabinet Office” known as the “clearing house”. The group was tasked with “blacklisting” certain journalists and blocking “the release of sensitive FOI requests”.

Conservative MP David Davis, a signatory of the letter, said at the time that the so-called “clearing house” was “certainly against the spirit of the (FOI) Act – and probably the letter, too”.

The Times’ editor John Witherow said: “Transparency is not a privilege or a gift bequeathed to a grateful citizenry by a benign government. It is a fundamental right of a free people to be able to see and scrutinise the decisions made on their behalf.”

And The Guardian’s editor-in-chief Katharine Viner added that deliberate “time-wasting on legitimate FOI requests” was “at odds with [the government’s] global commitments to press freedom”.

In addition to Zahawi deleting his correspondence with Cameron, The Times reports that “more than a third of Boris Johnson’s cabinet have downloaded Signal, a messaging app that allows users to delete their communications” and avoid future FOI requests.

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