UK government censured for a lack of transparency and accountability

The global coalition for transparency and anti-corruption has put the UK “under review”, heightening concerns about the government’s commitment to openness following a series of scandals.

In a letter to the government, seen by Sky News, the Open Government Partnership said the UK had failed to live up to its pledges to improve transparency and accountability.

The rare intervention means the UK will become the ninth of the international coalition’s 78 members to be placed under review, joining a list that includes Bulgaria, Malawi, Malta and South Africa.

The Open Government Partnership has no power to impose punishments, but the news has come as a shock, as the UK played a key role in the group’s foundation in 2011 and is currently its biggest funder, donating £6.8 million over three years.

One of the country’s leading advocates of open government told Sky News he was stunned by the decision, saying: “This is shameful”.

Kevin Keith, chair of the UK Open Government Network, said: “The UK government’s reputation for openness and accountability is in freefall.

“It shows how far we have fallen in a decade and is symptomatic of wider problems including the unlawful failure to publish contracts awarded during the pandemic.”

The UK was put under review for failing to involve the public in the development of its plan for increasing openness, and for submitting its most recent two plans late, but the apparently technical infringements are being seen in the light of wider concerns about transparency, following a series of high-profile controversies.

Last month, the High Court ruled that the government had broken the law by failing to publish coronavirus-related contracts on time. Ministers have been accused of favouring friends and political contacts for coronavirus work including supplying PPE.

This followed a rare show of unity from the editors of The Times, The Daily Telegraph, Financial Times and Daily Mirror, who called on the government to take “urgent” action to fix Freedom of Information following an Open Democracy report which claimed that Michael Gove’s Cabinet Office was monitoring requests for information from journalists.

An Open Government Partnership review of the UK’s efforts to increase transparency largely blamed Brexit for the problems, saying that “political uncertainty” had led to “reduced capacity” for officials.

However, civil society groups warned that the political desire to involve the public in decision-making had waned in the decade since the UK helped set up the Open Government Partnership, which now represents more than two billion people worldwide.

The Open Government Network, a collection of groups devoted to openness and democratic reform, has sent a letter to Cabinet Office minister Julia Lopez saying it is “very concerned” by the UK being placed under review.

The letter, which has been signed by organisations such as Full Fact, the Open Data Institute and the Open Contracting Partnership, calls on the government to “build trust with its citizens” by giving “clear political support” to efforts to improve openness.

Gavin Hayman, Executive Director of the Open Contracting Partnership, which works to increase transparency in procurement, said that ministers needed to work harder to improve trust in government.

“The UK is hosting two of the world’s most important summits in its first year after Brexit – the G7 and the Glasgow Climate Conference. There is no better time for this government to demonstrate that it is committed to open democracy,” he told Sky News.

“This letter is about seizing that opportunity, reinvigorating the UK’s open government process, and using it to drive vital domestic reforms like fixing public procurement.”

A government spokesperson said: “The government is absolutely committed to transparency and public accountability in all it does.

“As a founding member of the Open Government Partnership, we remain deeply committed to upholding its core values of transparency, accountability, and public participation.”

Work on the UK’s next action plan is currently underway, although civil society groups and the government differ on whether progress on it is being fast enough.

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