28/04/2021), the New Civil Engineer writes ‘Calls for investigation into ‘insidious cover-up culture’ at Highways England‘ adding ‘Internal emails sent between senior Highways England officials and members of the organisation’s Freedom of Information (FOI) team show deliberate attempts to obfuscate the FOI process, according to MPs and campaign groups.’ Motor Transport carries the headline ‘MPs and environmental groups slam Highways England for “insidious cover-up culture” and ITV, ‘Campaigners condemn ‘cover-up culture’ in row over new dual carriageway through Rimrose Valley Country Park‘
In one email (04/12/2020) a Highways England assistant project manager wrote after having had an interesting conversation with ‘the FoI officer’ about a request:
‘There is of course no guarantee that, if we call their bluff and force RVF and/or the MPs to appeal to the IC, the Commissioner will rule in our favour – but we wouldn’t be much worse off than if we give way now.
On the other hand, if she did rule in our favour, it could go a long way to closing down the FOI/EIR route for RVF in future.’ The full email can be read here.
The above approach is that which we encountered when we attempted to obtain DCP (damage to Crown property) rates; the Authority withheld information in the knowledge that their position could not be bettered by making the disclosure. Furthermore, the Authority could get lucky; the ICO may rule in their favour and close down such requests. In our case, the Authority were supported by the ICO. However, a Tribunal saw through the conduct in 12/2018, the Authority was to provide the information they had stated (on 175 occasions?) existed. But the Authority had another trick up its sleeve; claim ‘the rates are not held, they do not exist’. Odd, in 2020 we obtained a copy!
Highways England’s approach to FoI refusal appears to be casual; ‘give it a go‘.
The conduct came to light following MP Mr Esterson’s FOI request which was rejected despite Highways England telling him in a letter that they “do hold information that is relevant to your request”. The ITV report:
Mr Esterson said: “These emails show an outrageously arrogant attempt by Highways England to cover up a legitimate request for information through the Freedom of Information Act 2000.
“In merely carrying out our duty as a Member of Parliament, representing our constituents, we were met with obstacles to transparency at every turn.
“It speaks to an insidious cover-up culture at Highways England which must be investigated.”
More about Highways England’s conduct with regard to the FoIA and the issue giving rise to the disclosure of the information setting out the Authority’s conduct can be read here: ‘MPs and environmental groups slam Highways England for “insidious cover-up culture‘.
Further comment such as ‘“Whether it’s smart motorways or the environment, Highways England refuse to publish anything that shows the true impact on people and communities.” can be read in the Liverpool Echo.