I still remember my first information tribunal. In 2015 I had submitted a FOI request to get hold of more information about a controversial drone strike in Syria. This was refused, so I appealed and appealed and, eventually, ended up with a date in a court before a judge.
The night before I was sick with nerves. I was in my mid-20s and holding down a couple of jobs at the time. With no media organisation supporting me, I was defending myself against high-profile QCs in the room. On the verge of tears, I kept reading, and then re-reading, a speech I had prepared.
The days in court that followed were daunting, and from start to finish, it was a very long process. Eventually I received a court decision in January 2018.
The second time in court was better, and I was slightly more confident. Slightly. This time I had asked for a sample of research materials produced by the European Research Group that were held by the Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority back in January 2018.
At the time, the ERG was a powerful group of Conservative backbenchers, and had received hundreds of thousands of pounds in public funds. The public funds their research, and that research is used to inform its members over key issues, primarily Brexit. I felt the public was entitled to view the research materials they had paid for.
This time I was more familiar with the tribunal processes, and my arguments were more succinct and convincing. Yet it was still a daunting process without representation. Eighteen months later after I made that FOI request, it was ruled that I was allowed access to the research materials. But by then, the ERG was less powerful and not particularly newsworthy, so I kept asking myself: was it actually worth it?
The third time was not so great, despite winning. This time, I forced the Department for Exiting the European Union to release documents from an influential lobbyist, Shanker Singham, to Brexit ministers and senior civil servants after a judge ruled in our favour. The original request was made way back in October 2017, and we didn’t get a result until late last year. All I wanted to know was information relating to the meetings he was having with senior government figures – it had taken two years and countless hours of work to force the government to abide by its own laws.
And now I’m looking at my rejected FOI requests over the government’s handling of the pandemic, especially over the awarding of contracts and the work companies are doing for eye-watering amounts of sums. If I were to challenge them, when would I get a result? Eighteen months down the line? Two years maybe?
But perhaps something might change this time. Working with Leigh Day, we are challenging the Cabinet Office over its refusal to release information about its Clearing House. The more information we get out of the Cabinet Office, the more we can learn about the barrier that stops journalists, campaigners, researchers and the public from accessing vital information.
And the more information we force out from the Cabinet Office over its highly questionable FOI practices, perhaps we can force change, perhaps the broken system can be mended. At least that’s what I think on the good days.