Lobbying on the UK referendum: a freedom of information black hole

In the run up to the UK referendum on EU membership on 23 June, Corporate Europe Observatory has tabled a series of freedom of information requests to find out how UK finance lobbies have been influencing the referendum negotiations and the Capital Markets Union. But the Brexit-Bremain referendum seems to be a freedom of information black hole.

UK ‘freedom of information’

Under UK freedom of information rules, CEO wanted to find out a couple of things. Firstly, how a handful of financial industry lobby groups (which feature in our recent UK finance lobby firepower report) have been lobbying on the UK referendum and the EU-level negotiations which proceeded it; and secondly how the same groups have been lobbying the UK government on the EU’s Capital Markets Union. The CMU is a sweeping agenda for deregulation intended mainly to expand the trade in “securities”, the very financial products that played a key role in causing the financial crisis of 2008, and which are very dominant in the UK’s City of London. The CMU itself could even be seen as a sweetener to the UK, to maintain its EU membership.

In January 2016, we put our freedom of information requests to the Cabinet Office (which manages freedom of information on behalf of the UK prime minister), the Treasury (finance ministry), Foreign Office, UK permanent representation based in Brussels, and the Department for Business.

A month or so later, all five departments responded that to provide such data would breach the £600 cost limit that can be applied to a UK freedom of information request if it would take too much staff time to collect the answer. All five proposed that we narrow the scope of the requests which we duly did, by reducing the time-frame to be covered. By the end of March, a response was received from the business department that it held no such data.

However the other four continued to argue with us about the scope of the request and to refuse to process it on cost grounds. We reduced the number of financial lobbies being asked about from eight to three, and we further narrowed the period of time for which we sought data. Still, the authorities would not provide any information.

The Treasury wrote at the end of April that “a preliminary search of our repositories … brings up a very large amount of information as we have regular engagements with these stakeholders on a broad range of topics”. But of course, that kind of statement just whets our appetite to find out more. We were also told that because our two requests were similar, they would be handled as one request so, faced with little choice, we prioritised receiving information on the referendum request. The Treasury finally replied in early June to say that on our drastically-whittled down request, involving only two finance lobby groups and a narrow time-frame, they did not hold any information. Maybe the old adage applies here: if you ask the right question, you get the right answer!

Meanwhile, over four months after first asking the prime minister’s office, the Foreign Office, and the UK permanent representation for information on how the financial lobby has influenced the UK government’s approach to the referendum, we are none the wiser. Specifically, the permanent representation has now closed our request saying it holds relevant information but will not release it because “it is the opinion of a UK Minister that disclosing this information would be likely to inhibit the free and frank exchange of views for the purposes of advice and deliberation.” So a minister has now blocked our request.

In April 2016, we also asked the Bank of England (BoE) for a list of all lobby meetings with key finance lobbies on the CMU and EU banking regulation. The BoE firstly asked us to clarify what we meant by a “lobby meeting” and then asked for a further narrowing of the request. Again, at the time of writing, we have received no data.

EU ‘access to documents’

When it comes to Brexit, like the UK government, the European Commission’s lips have also been sealed.

Jonathan Faull, the Commission’s point man with the UK government on the referendum has had a series of meetings with lobby groups including the Trades Union Congress, NGOs, think tanks, and academia, but also including corporate lobby groups: HSBC, City of London Corporation, Deutsche Bank, Confederation of British Industry and others. In January we asked for the minutes of these meetings and any position papers circulated by these groups. It turns out that few minutes of these meetings were kept, but those that do exist could not be released. We appealed but that was also rejected in April, even though the UK’s negotiations with the other 27 member states had concluded in February and so arguably that process could no longer be influenced.

It is perhaps worth quoting the rejection at length:

“Disclosure of the requested documents at this stage would seriously undermine the decision-making process with regard to the establishment of a new settlement for the United Kingdom within the EU, as it would put in the public domain internal, informal opinions of Commission staff, as well as preliminary views and positions of Commission officials and interest representatives, giving rise to premature, and potentially erroneous, inferences about the delicate topics under discussion.”

The Commission also said:

“The content of these purely internal documents could be misunderstood, or misused, in the context of the (in/out) referendum in the United Kingdom, distorting or impairing a serene discussion on this highly sensitive matter”.

It’s hard to imagine anyone following the appallingly low-grade referendum debate in the UK as thinking it could ever be “serene”. Essentially this reply means ‘we-don’t-want-to-rock-the-boat’.

CEO also asked the European Central Bank (ECB) for all exchanges between its president, Mario Draghi, and the Bank of England on securities markets legislation. At the time of writing, the ECB is still deciding whether or not to release information about the relevant meetings.

Why does all this matter?

Why should the UK and EU authorities release information about who has been lobbying them on the referendum and related issues and what they might have said? Because the UK referendum is a major moment, not just for UK citizens, but for the other 27 EU member states too. With less than two weeks to go, many people in the UK remain undecided. Shouldn’t we all be as well-informed as possible about the interactions behind-the-scenes between lobby groups and decision-makers?

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