Social justice campaigners have taken legal action against the DIT in a dispute involving government allegedly signing trade negotiation rights in secret.
The Department for International Trade (DIT) is facing a tribunal hearing today over an ongoing dispute involving whether papers from the post-Brexit trade deal that had been heavily redacted, met the government’s Freedom of Information (FOI) obligations.
The papers are related to trade deal negotiations between the UK and the US and other countries in 2019.
Furore ignited when Corbyn alluded to redactions
During the 2019 general election debates, the redacted notes were held up by Jeremy Corbyn – action which ignited uproar over the government’s lack of transparency about trade deal talks.
In a bombshell press conference in November 2019, the then Labour leader waved the heavily-redacted government documents that related to months of trade talks between the US and the UK.
Global Justice Now, a democratic social justice organisation which is part of a global movement to challenge the powerful and create a fairer world, has obtained an almost entirely redacted copy of the notes.
The appeal tribunal, which is taking place today (September 20, 2021), will determine whether the government was within its right to withhold the information on the basis of it being exempt from the Freedom of Information Act.
FOI gives people the right to know about activities of public interest
The main principle of the Freedom of Information Act 2000 is that people have a right to know about the activities of public authorities. An absolution exemption means there is no obligation under the FOIA to release the requested information. However, exemptions must undergo a public interest test for each piece of information. This test decides whether the sensitivities outweigh the public’s need to see the requested information.
Not all the information should have been redacted, lawyers argue
A previous tribunal over the redacted post-Brexit trade talk papers found that public interest balance fell in favour of withholding some of the requested information. However, lawyers representing Global Justice Now are arguing that not all of the information in the papers should have been redacted.
According to the lawyers involved in the case, the previous tribunal made a legal mistake, as they aggregated public interest factors rather than considering each individual exemption, and in its analysis of whether the exemptions were engaged.
‘Get out of jail free card’
Global Justice Now has labelled the redacted post-Brexit trade deal content as ‘utterly undemocratic.’ The group contends that people have a right to know about their rights, their food standards, and whether their public service will be sold off in post-Brexit trade deals.
According to Global Justice Now, exempting such information from FOI law would be like handing the Department for International Trade a “get out of jail free card.”
Commenting on the case, Nick Dearden, director of Global Justice Now, said:
“Trade deals sign entire countries up to a litany of rules and regulations that impact our daily lives. From the NHS to workers’ rights, to environmental protections – everything can be up for grabs in trade negotiations.
“It’s utterly undemocratic to shroud these negotiations in secrecy. People have a right to know if their rights, their food standards, or their public services are being sold off.
“This isn’t just about the US trade deal. We are forging new post-Brexit trade deals across the world. We can’t just hand the Department for International Trade a ‘get out of jail free’ card in these negotiations when so much is at stake.”
Erin Alcock, a lawyer at Leigh Day, the solicitors that are representing Global Justice Now, commented on how the case raises vital issues surrounding the FOIA and its exemptions.
“Our client’s appeal raises some important points of legal principle relating to the operation of the public interest test within the Freedom of Information Act, which is used to decide on the release of information that might otherwise be exempt from disclosure.
“It is crucial that the test is correctly applied to ensure all information that should be publicly available is released into the public domain. In this case, the information sought is needed to feed into the important public debate about post-Brexit trade deals and their impact on individual rights in the UK and abroad,” Alcock continued.
Gabrielle Pickard-Whitehead is a freelance journalist and contributing editor to Left Foot Forward.
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