The Government faces “inevitable” legal action after refusing to give ground on secrecy surrounding an £800m science agency.
Ministers have insisted Aria, the brainchild of Dominic Cummings, should be exempt from Freedom of Information (FOI) Laws.
Transparency campaigners are threatening to take the Government to force them to reveal how the new body spends its huge budget.
But in response to a legal ‘letter before action’ from campaign group Unlock Democracy, the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy argued the secrecy was necessary to “empower exceptional people to focus solely on funding ground-breaking research.”
The department has previously argued it needed to keep the body’s work secret because there would be too much public interest in how it operates.
An official said: “Despite its size, ARIA will be very much in the public eye. we expect the number of FOI requests to be disproportionate to its size and therefore inhibiting.”
Unlock Democracy director Tom Brake said: “The Government’s laughable responses … made a legal challenge inevitable. The public’s right to ask searching questions about how public money is spent shouldn’t be discarded this flippantly.”
A law to set up the costly agency, which was suggested by Boris Johnson ’s former top aide Dominic Cummings to ape the success of US research body DARPA, was expected to pass its final Commons hurdle tonight before being debated in the House of Lords.
In a letter to Unlock Democracy, a BEIS official wrote: “We know from comparable organisations that there is a significant staffing cost associated with the business function required to manage FOI requests.
“In this unique instance, it is judged that this requirement is incompatible with ARIA’s operation as an extraordinarily lean organisation.
“Whilst there are certain exemptions within FOIA that provide a safeguard, all requests must still be processed, and it is that administration that is likely to run contrary to the lean and agile operation of ARIA.”
They added: “The creation of ARIA as a new statutory corporation is motivated by the desire to create a distinct cultural identity, and way of working, that empower exceptional people to focus solely on funding ground-breaking research.”
But Clara Maguire, Executive Director of campaign group the Citizens said: “Aria is the government’s flagship tech project dreamed up by Dominic Cummings with an initial £800m price tag.
“The idea that this entire body should be exempt from proper public scrutiny is truly alarming.
“Cummings told parliament this [last] week that secrecy around the science at the start of the pandemic was a ‘catastrophic’ mistake. Even more catastrophic would be to make this same mistake again.”
Ravi Naik, Legal Director at the data rights law firm and consultancy AWO said: “Our clients have regrettably had to pursue legal action for simple explanations as to why an important agency will be excluded from freedom of information laws.
“The justifications provided to date have been sorely lacking and insofar as justifications have been given, they do not stand up to scrutiny.
“Our clients hope that the decision to exempt ARIA from freedom of information laws is reconsidered in light of the absence of any reasonable grounds to do so to date.”