The Home Office, the Foreign Office and the Ministry of Justice have been named as the worst-performing government departments for transparency by a leading thinktank.
A report by the Institute for Government (IFG) has analysed information that is supposed to be regularly released across Whitehall showing the people ministers, civil servants and special advisers meet, and the gifts and hospitality they receive.
Launched in the wake of the Greensill affair, when key meetings between ministers and lobbyists were not registered, researchers discovered that:
The Ministry of Justice is by far the least reliable department on ministerial releases, often publishing data late, and failing to publish any information on five occasions.
The disclosures follow a difficult year for Whitehall transparency when campaigners and watchdogs such as the Committee on Standards in Public Life (CSPL) have demanded reform.
It emerged that former prime minister David Cameron was employed by Lex Greensill’s firm and then lobbied government ministers and senior civil servants for access to a Covid loan scheme.
The extent of the lobbying efforts, which included Cameron contacting the chancellor, Rishi Sunak, on his private mobile phone, was initially revealed by media reports rather than official records.
It also follows an outcry over former health secretary Matt Hancock’s relationship with his friend Gina Coladangelo, whom he appointed as a non-executive director to his department.
The IfG report, entitled Government Transparency: Departmental Releases: Ministers and Officials, analyses selected government information published between July 2015 and March 2021.
Measuring reliability, quality, and accessibility, the transparency tests set by Theresa May as prime minister, the report found that departments vary in the speed at which they publish data and the level of detail they share.
Even when information is published, it is not always useful, the report said. The Treasury described the purpose of five meetings held by its permanent secretary between July and September 2018 as simply “meeting”.
The descriptions of special advisers’ meetings are particularly low on detail, the IfG found.
Between July and September 2018, special advisers at the Cabinet Office had 16 meetings with media representatives. Eight were described as “lunch” and another was described as “breakfast”.
The lead author of the report, Tim Durrant, said the Greensill and Coladangelo scandals reminded the public that ministers need to disclose who they meet and what they are discussing.
“Despite calls for departments to publish more information about ministerial meetings, our research shows that departments are not consistently publishing information they have currently committed to share,” he said.
After the collapse of Greensill bank and the subsequent lobbying scandal, the government appointed the corporate lawyer Nigel Boardman to review lobbying rules. His appointment proved controversial because he was a former Conservative party candidate with close links to the government.
The Boardman report found that there was insufficient clarity about government process, mildly criticised Cameron, and exonerated current ministers.
Reacting to the IfG report, a government spokesperson said transparency measures had increased through the introduction of open publications including quarterly ministerial and official data on external meetings, gifts, hospitality, overseas travel and contracts.
“We will carefully consider the recommendations of the recent Boardman review in this area, along with the ongoing work of the Committee on Standards in Public Life, and we will respond in due course,” the spokesperson said.