Departments are withholding more information in response to Freedom of Information requests, with the Department for Exiting the European Union (DExEU) one of the most opaque. This is one example of a wider lack of transparency around Brexit. Publication of spending and organisational data remains patchy, suggesting departments are not using the data themselves. The early election has disrupted the flow of information to select committees holding government to account.
Communication and transparency are an important part of departments’ work. They allow the public and Parliament to understand what government is doing and hold it to account. How departments respond can also indicate administrative competence, and the requests received can be a useful early warning mechanism.
Our ‘responsiveness ranking’ looks at three key mechanisms for requesting government information: Freedom of Information (anyone can write to a department and request information), ministerial correspondence (MPs writing to departments on behalf of their constituents) and written parliamentary questions (MPs asking ministers directly about their work, policies and activities). The Wales Office, Department of Health (DH) and Department for Transport (DfT) were the most responsive; the Department for Education (DfE), Department for Communities and Local Government (DCLG) and the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS) the least.
In 2016–17 more ministerial correspondence was answered in time thanks to more generous targets, while fewer parliamentary questions were answered on time and information was withheld in response to more Freedom of Information requests.
Parliament has other mechanisms to hold government to account, including urgent questions (which have increased significantly in recent years) or select committee inquiries (which have also increased in number, with the election delaying government responses).
Meanwhile, departments’ publication of mandated data releases, including spending over £25,000, organograms and ministerial hospitality, is patchy. Departments also proactively publish on GOV.UK, though supply and demand differs by department.
The Wales Office was the best department at responding to requests for information on time (though had the fewest requests to respond to)
In 2016–17, the Wales Office was the most responsive department, although it received fewer requests for information than any other department. The Department of Health (DH) was a close second, despite the high volume of requests it received.
Government departments receive a considerably higher volume of ministerial correspondence – a total of 137,427 items in 2016-17 – than parliamentary questions or Freedom of Information requests (FoIs) but departments were generally slower at responding to this kind of request. The Home Office (HO) received more than any other department – more than twice as many as Work and Pensions (DWP), which had the second-largest mailbag – with the majority of HO requests going to UK Visas and Immigration. Both departments have a good response rate – 92% for HO and 89% for DWP. DH received the greatest amount of correspondence directly (not through any affiliated public bodies) and has a high response rate: 94%, in line in 2016 (with an average of 96% since 2010).
Departments received 32,951 FoI requests between September 2016 and September 2017. As usual, four – DWP, the ministries of Defence and Justice (MoD, MoJ) and HO – received more than any others, collectively receiving over half of total requests. Departments can be subject to special monitoring by the Information Commissioner’s Office if their response timeliness falls below 85%. Over the past year, the departments of International Trade (DIT), Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS) and the DCLG have all fallen below this target for at least two quarters, with DCLG having the worst response rate overall (averaging 67%). The DfT and the Treasury (HMT) have not fallen below the 85% threshold at any point since 2010.
Departments dealt with 34,193 written parliamentary questions in the 2016–17 session. On average, 83% of parliamentary questions were answered within target, a decline from 90% in 2015–16. Four departments answered 100% of their parliamentary questions within the target time: DH, MoD, DfT and the Scotland Office. Meanwhile the department with the lowest timeliness score was DfE, answering only 69% on time.
The Wales Office, DH, and the Department for International Development (DfID) have maintained their high responsiveness rankings, but 2016–17 saw improved performances from DfT and MoD. Conversely some departments continue to perform poorly, such as DCLG (which came joint last), DfE and MoJ. The responsiveness of the new departments is also noticeably poor – with DExEU in 12th, DIT in 17th and BEIS joint last (worse than its ancestor departments BIS and DECC).
Government is withholding more information in response to Freedom of Information requests
Since 2010, departments have become less open in response to FoI requests. In Q3 2010, 39% of requests were fully or partially withheld; this had increased to 52% by Q3 2017. Departments are able to refuse requests on a number of grounds: if the request falls under one of the 23 exemptions in the Freedom of Information Act 2000 (such as national security or personal information) or those in the Environmental Information Regulations; if it breaches the limit for the cost involved in responding (£600 for central departments and Parliament); if the request is repeated; or if the request is ‘vexatious’ (meaning it is likely ‘to cause a disproportionate or unjustifiable level of distress, disruption or irritation’). Of the 2,342 requests withheld in full in Q3 2017, 50% were due to FoI Act exemptions, 47% to cost, 2% to repetition and 1% to vexatiousness.
Some departments are more open than others: the Scotland Office, Wales Office and DfT tend to grant more requests in full. Among the more opaque are several departments regularly granting fewer than 30% of requests, particularly since 2015, including the Cabinet Office, Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO), the Treasury, HM Revenue and Customs (HMRC) and MoJ.
Meanwhile, none of the departments created in July 2016 – DExEU, DIT and BEIS – has ever granted even half of its total requests in full. In the three quarters leading up to Q3 2017, DExEU was the least likely of all departments to comply with FoI requests, respectively answering 18%, 10% and 15% in full. It also refused a higher percentage because they were vexatious than any other department in Q2 2017; 14% of requests. DExEU’s lack of transparency here, and its tardy responses to other requests for information (though not on FoI, where it is the sixth most responsive department), are consistent with its wider reluctance to release information, including the Government’s assessments of the anticipated impact of Brexit on different parts of the UK economy.
Timeliness of ministerial correspondence is rising, but there are fewer requests and easier targets
Between 2010 and 2016, the percentage of correspondence answered on time across all of government rose from 78.2% to 84.3%. However, this was as the volume of correspondence decreased by a third, and the average response target time (departments get to set their own) rose from 14.8 to 15.6 days. Over this period, three departments – DH, DfID and the Wales Office – answered over 90% of their correspondence on time. Another six – DWP, FCO, DfT, HO, MoD and Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) – answered over 80% on time. The worst performers have been the Treasury and DfE, with averages of 62% and 59% (although it should be noted that DfE has improved considerably, from 42% in 2010 to 63% in 2017).
In 2016, the Wales Office answered 100% of correspondence on time, while two of the new departments were the worst performers. BEIS and DIT failed to respond to more than half of correspondence on time. Although DExEU met its target response time on 68% of occasions, it was one of only five departments (the others being FCO, DfT, DCMS and MoD) to give itself the maximum 20 days to respond, making this a relatively poor performance.
The Department of Health receives the greatest number of parliamentary questions
In the 2016–17 session there were 35,267 parliamentary questions, a slight drop from 37,401 in 2015–16. At 5,716, DH by far received the most, a slight increase from 5,526 in 2015–16, and more than double the second highest department, the Home Office, with 2,852. Meanwhile, the territorial offices received the least amount of questions, with none receiving more than 250. The average department received around 1,710 parliamentary questions over the parliamentary period. BEIS, DIT and DExEU only came into existence in July 2016, and therefore may have recorded slightly fewer questions over the session as a result.
Parliament is demanding more information from government
Although written parliamentary questions are the most voluminous way by which MPs question ministers, there are other ways for MPs to request information from them.
Urgent questions (UQs) allow any MP to petition the Speaker of the House of Commons to demand that a minister comes to Parliament to answer questions on a matter that has suddenly arisen. Recent topics have included the publication of Brexit impact assessments, the humanitarian crisis in Yemen, and the alleged tax avoidance and evasion revealed in the Paradise Papers. As Speaker, John Bercow has been more willing than his predecessors to grant requests for UQs, seeing them as an important tool to ‘revive the chamber’ and scrutinise the Government. Since his election in June 2009, there has been a notable jump in UQs, from the equivalent of one every 13 days Parliament sat in 2008–09, to one every six days in 2009–10. The number of questions hovered around this level throughout the Coalition, before increasing significantly again following the 2015 general election: there were 77 in 2015–16 and 74 in 2016–17 (equivalent to one UQ every two days Parliament sat). In 2016/17, one third of all urgent questions related to HO or FCO; HO was also the most common department for urgent questions in 2015–16 (around 20%). Although finding historical parliamentary data on the subject is difficult, it appears that Bercow has exceeded post-war records for granting urgent questions.
Select committees are another important source of scrutiny, but over the past year much useful committee activity was cut off mid-stream. The announcement of the early general election resulted in unfinished inquiries and a flurry of activity as 45 committee reports were rushed to publication in the three weeks before Parliament was dissolved.
Where possible, government should respond to select committee reports within two months. In the 2015–16 session, the Government responded to 14% of reports within 62 days – in 2016–17 this had slightly decreased, to 10%. One explanation for this decline is that the number of reports more than doubled, from 115 in 2015–16 to 267 in 2016–17, suggesting departments were not keeping pace with increasing scrutiny.
At the beginning of 2018, nearly one fifth of all reports were still awaiting a response. Between 2015–16 and 2016–17, the percentage of inquiries answered after six months or not at all has nearly doubled, from 18% to 34%. One explanation for delays in departments’ responses is the disruption of the committee process caused by the early election. Re-establishing committees after the election took considerable time; for example, the Intelligence and Security Committee only elected its chair in November. Departments were not able to respond to committees which did not exist. Furthermore, the early election meant that 18% of 2016–17 reports were published in a three-week window, creating a dense workload for departments to manage.
In 2016–17, 197 select committee reports were addressed specifically to a department. DH and HO received the greatest number of reports (19 each). Conversely, DIT received the lowest, with two reports. At 40%, the Cabinet Office responded to the greatest percentage of 2016–17 inquiries within the two month target, while 10 departments did not respond to any inquiries within that time.
Publication of open data releases remains patchy
Communication and transparency is not just about responding to requests, but proactively publishing information. In 2010, then-Prime Minister David Cameron committed the Coalition to making government more open and more accountable, by mandating that departments should regularly release important financial and organisational data. This included the meetings attended, travel conducted and hospitality and gifts received by ministers (quarterly, one quarter in arrears), spending items over £25,000 (monthly, by the end of the following month), and organograms of internal organisation (a 31 March snapshot to be published by 6 June, and a 30 September snapshot to be published by 6 December). Departments’ records in meeting these commitments have been mixed over the last year.
Departments’ publication of travel, meetings, gifts and hospitality – now collated for the first time by Transparency International UK – has improved decisively since 2010, when publication was incredibly patchy. This improvement has been gradual, with the exceptions of drop-offs in publication in 2014, Q1 and Q2 2016, and Q3 2017 (possibly the result of ‘purdah’ rules around the Scottish Independence Referendum, the EU Referendum and the 2017 general election). All departments except for the Scotland Office successfully published their hospitality data on time in Q3 2017.
For some departments – FCO, DfID, DfT, MoJ and the Treasury – this recent performance is a significant improvement from previous years. Although departments are now consistently publishing these releases on time, they could be published more quickly; data on spending over £25,000 and organograms both have more ambitious targets.
Some meetings will not be disclosed for nearly six months after they take place.
Publication of spending over £25,000 has historically been poor, with the Cabinet Office (CO), DCMS, DfT and the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) publishing late. Departments such as HMRC, FCO, DH and DfE generally publish on time. Between December 2016 and November 2017, only 29% of monthly releases were published on time – 46% were late, and 23% were not published at all. HMRC and DfID both performed well, with 10 out of 12 publications on time, while DH, FCO and DfE also managed to get the majority of their publications out on time. Seven departments (BEIS, Defra, DExEU, DfT, DIT, HO and MoJ) failed to publish a single record on time; worst performing was HO, which published no data for this period. The DWP also performed poorly – not publishing data on six occasions – having previously had a strong record.
Publication of organogram data – containing vital management information about departmental structures, employees, their pay and seniority – has become increasingly patchy in the past few years. For March 2011, all departments published some form of data – for September 2017, only six have. Most significantly, DCMS and HMT have not published organograms since March 2015, and the three new departments have not yet published any at all (although DExEU has published a few ‘senior team organogram’ diagrams).
The failure to publish this data suggests departments themselves are not using it. Indeed, the Institute for Government hosted a ‘hack day’ on organogram data in July 2017 precisely because many departments saw organogram publication as a tick-box transparency exercise and were not aware of the value they could obtain from the data contained in the releases.
More people are using GOV.UK, but use and publication varies by department
Departments, of course, publish a lot more than data releases, most of it going on GOV.UK, launched in 2012 to act as a single government website. Users of the site have increased fourfold since its launch, to a weekly average of 13 million across 2017 (with the busiest week, 27 March to 2 April, recording over 15 million users).
Of all departments on GOV.UK, HMRC and its associated pages were by far the most viewed in 2017, with 378 million views in 2017 (reaching 10.7 million in its busiest week). DWP was the second most viewed (at 142.5 million). Meanwhile none of the territorial offices exceeded 0.25 million views in 2017, and DExEU was the least viewed central department at 1.7 million. These figures reflect how directly different departments deal with the public – while HMRC, DWP and FCO handle tax, benefits and travel advice, DExEU is more Whitehall-focused.
As well as seeing how the public is using GOV.UK, we can get a sense of how departments use it. At the close of 2017 there were over 107,000 ‘publications’ on GOV.UK, of which nearly a fifth were published that year. The department with the greatest all-time number of publications is HMRC (with over 6,000 publications), followed by FCO and the HO. The territorial offices and new departments have the fewest – with DExEU (at 70) especially low (even in light of its short history). In 2017 only HMRC and FCO published more than 1,000 items, while four departments published less than 100 – the territorial offices and DExEU.
So what is being published? In 2017 about a third of new GOV.UK publications related to policy or guidance, just over a quarter to research and statistics, and nearly a fifth to corporate responsibilities (which includes FoI releases and 'transparency data’). The most infrequent type of publication was consultations, which made up only 4% of total items. DH made the greatest use of consultations (19% of its publications). Policy and guidance largely dominated content, making up over half of all publications for six departments (DCLG, DExEU, DfID, DH, FCO and MoD). There was significant variety in research/statistics (which made up a third of content for BEIS, Defra, DfE, DfT, DWP and MoJ, but less than 10% for eight other departments). None of DExEU’s 70 publications are consultations or statistics.
This gives a very high-level view of how departments are using GOV.UK and the different nature of the work they do. Further information on individual services can be found via the Government’s Performance Platform. In October 2016, the Government Digital Service (GDS) announced a rethink of the way the platform worked. Although data for some services is out of date, for others – such as vehicle tax renewals (run by the Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency within DfT) – there is much more recent information. Further transparency about these numbers would offer useful feedback to government about the services it is providing, and help to fulfil GDS’s commitment to put users first.