Ministers “squandered” £20,000 on legal fees trying to hide how much it paid influencers to promote a back-to-school campaign – which is more than the celebrities were paid.
After a two-and-a-half-year transparency battle with Schools Week, the Cabinet Office revealed last year it paid a total of £13,000 to TV presenter Kirsty Gallacher and celebrity GP Dr Philippa Kaye to support the government’s post-lockdown push to get pupils back in classrooms.
The department was in the process of taking court action over our freedom of information (FOI) request, but dropped the case at the last minute and handed over the information.
Now, a new FOI request has revealed the Cabinet Office spent £19,683 on legal fees to fight publication of the information.
This includes £12,883 on government legal department costs and £3,520 on legal counsel’s fees, as well as VAT.
Geoff Barton, general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders union, said spending a larger sum “attempting to cover up the amount they paid originally just adds insult to injury. It is important the public money is used wisely and transparently. Neither has happened in this instance.
“All credit to Schools Week for their tenacity but, frankly, at a time of brewing budget cuts in schools and colleges, it’s pretty dispiriting that the government thinks it can get away with squandering public money in this way.”
The Information Commissioner’s Office had ordered the Cabinet Office to disclose the influencer pay, but ministers decided to challenge the decision in the first-tier tribunal.
However, they pulled out of the case after various legal documents had been prepared and submitted by both parties.
Maurice Frankel, director at Campaign for FOI, said: “Appealing to the tribunal against the ICO decision was unnecessary and the fact that the legal costs dwarfed the actual payments speaks for itself.”
The Cabinet Office has previously spent at least £300,000 blocking similar information requests in court, The Times reported in 2022.
MPs on the public administration and constitutional affairs committee previously found there had been a “slide away from transparency” on some FOIs.
Press Gazette reported last week that UK public bodies granted just 34 per cent of FOI requests between April to June last year. This is down from 41 per cent granted in 2020 – which was then labelled the “worst on record for government secrecy”.
A Cabinet Office spokesperson said they have a “strong commitment to transparency”.
“Despite receiving thousands of FOI requests every month, the vast majority are responded to on time. We also proactively publish more information outside of the Freedom of Information Act than ever before.”