Published: 12:10, 24 January 2019
| Updated: 12:16, 24 January 2019
Organisations in Kent preparing contingency plans for Brexit were advised by the government on how to resist releasing information about their work to avoid causing public concern.
A leaked report has revealed how councils, emergency services and other public bodies in the county given tips on how to avoid disclosing details under Freedom of Information rules.
It advised bosses to follow guidance from the Department for Exiting the EU (DExEU) and showed ways to keep emergency plans under wraps - and in some circumstances even refuse to say whether it held any information.
The report was prepared by the Kent Resilience Forum, the group co-ordinating the strategy in the county for dealing with disruption in the event of a no-deal Brexit.
The report - marked as ‘sensitive’ and updated last month - cited guidance issued by DExEU that councils and other organisations should refuse Freedom of Information requests about emergency planning and in some circumstances should not even confirm whether they hold information.
In a section headed “How to respond to Brexit-related FOI Requests” the report says Local Resilience Forums or individual partner organisations that receive FOI requests should respond by saying disclosure would not be in the public interest as it “would undermine the effective conduct of public affairs.”
Where requests were about specific details about plans on a particular subject or relevant to an area, the authority should refuse to even confirm or deny if it held information.
The report said authorities should follow guidance and argue that if details were released it could distract the public authority, divert resources and risk “public concern” about proposals.
“Trying to suppress details of Brexit planning will reduce scrutiny, increase the chances of problems not being properly dealt with and lead to even greater chaos if the plans ever have to be implemented...” - Campaign for Freedom of Information director Maurice Frankel
The report included a ready-made template for responding to FOI requests, in which organisations were advised to respond saying they can “neither confirm or deny” if they hold information.
The Campaign for Freedom of Information expressed concerns over the guidance.
Director Maurice Frankel said: “Trying to suppress details of Brexit planning will reduce scrutiny, increase the chances of problems not being properly dealt with and lead to even greater chaos if the plans ever have to be implemented.”
“In any case, the proposed FOI exemption is subject to a public interest test and it is very unlikely that the Information Commissioner would find that the public interest favours keeping the public in the dark about these momentous issues."
The report also reveals the government has tied ports to non-disclosure agreements, preventing them from releasing any details about their discussions.
Under a section headed: “Guidance on Non-disclosure Agreements” it quotes recommendations from the government’s Cross Border Delivery Group.
This says that while port authorities are free to share information with other organisations, these agreements “remain in effect for general disclosure into the public domain.”
A statement issued by Kent County Council on behalf of the forum said: "We are keen to provide our partners with advice on how they can prepare for a worst case EU Exit scenario.
"So that they can share it with their customers, the partner pack is about to be updated without the previous FOI guidance and under an ‘official’ marking.
"It will be reissued in the next few days, together with a pack for businesses.”
“The original pack included guidance previously provided to partners from the Department for Exiting the EU, regarding how FOI requests should be handled.”
What is the Kent Resilience Forum?
The forum is one of several across England that are responsible for emergency planning and drawing up contingency plans to deal with crises.
It is a partnership made up of a number of organisations and agencies, including councils, police forces and other emergency services.
The Kent forum is made up of over 100 organisations that are responsible for protecting the county and mitigating against identified risks.
However, its website currently makes no reference to Brexit planning.