The Cabinet Office is sometimes described as the ‘thinking brain of government’. So it’s a pity then that so little thought is applied to making it an open one. With a Freedom of Information (FOI) team that is infamous for their excuses, the ministry is frequently ranked as one of Whitehall’s worst-performing departments for transparency. But it seems that the Cabinet Office might now have tested the patience of its long-suffering watchdog once too often.
Just before Christmas, the Information Commissioner handed down a decision notice in a case which neatly highlights the extent to which the Cabinet Office will go to avoid disclosing even the most trivial information. At the beginning of 2022, the Sunday Times reported that Boris Johnson’s then-chief of staff Dan Rosenfield had insisted on the installation of a custom-made wardrobe in his No. 10 office. There then followed a lengthy back-and-forth between hacks and mandarins to reveal the cost and make of this contentious furnishing. Now, after an impressive two-year long FOI battle, the Commissioner has ordered that the information finally be published, having brushed off pleas that to do so would constitute a breach of personal data.
It’s by no means the only example of officials prevaricating and pettifogging. Back in February, the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) released an official ‘Coronation Celebration Playlist’ boasting an official 27-track playlist on Spotify. A minor controversy then followed after the Proclaimers’ I’m Gonna Be (500 Miles) was removed, following complaints about the band’s republican views. Steerpike and others duly submitted FOI requests, asking for any other songs or artists that had been purged from the playlist. Yet so nervous were the officials about this request that they got a minister of the Crown to sign a certificate preventing the publication of said information, on the grounds that it could prejudice the ‘effective conduct of public affairs.