The Government has decided to release just eight paragraphs of notes from Ministerial meetings about covid to the public, following a review by two unnamed senior civil servants.
The notes, which have only been released nearly eight months after Express’s original request under the Freedom of Information Law for minutes of all Competent Authorities Ministers’ (CAM) meetings throughout 2020, only cover three meetings – two in March and one in April.
They share very little of CAM’s deliberations, with the most in-depth section a short discussion touching on how freight volumes dropped 30% following lockdown, Paul Davis freight entering administration and an offer from Condor to use its Liberation for 18 trailers and freight if necessary.
The decision not to disclose full meeting minutes means that islanders are still without answers on exactly why Ministers decided to ignore their scientific advisers’ warning not to loosen borders last year; and the discussions that led to a sudden U-turn over festive meeting guidance.
Express will be continuing pushing to have the minutes released to the public.
The minutes were originally requested in the wake of calls for transparency and public fury when it first emerged in December that CAM had gone against STAC advice. They also followed frustrations shared publicly and privately by other Ministers left out of discussions on important decisions.
While Freedom of Information requests are supposed to be addressed within 20 days, it wasn’t until April that the Government replied, refusing to release the information on the basis that Ministers needed a “safe space” to have discussions and that some of the information constituted “policy under development”.
Express appealed this decision, on the basis that releasing the information was in the public interest, and that many of the covid policies were no longer being developed, and were already in place.
In response to the request for internal review, the Government had indicated that minutes were being combed through in detail, with a view to releasing them in redacted form.
After numerous delays, Freedom of Information officials then said there would be a meeting in July over the minutes’ release. Officials would not confirm who would be attending that meeting. However, this was then delayed due to “emergency pandemic meeting commitments.”
Pictured: Competent Authorities Ministers.
Days before the final response was issued last week, the Chief Minister said during a grilling in the States Assembly maintained that CAM was “as honest and transparent as we can be”, but said he did not agree with releasing the minutes.
He reiterated the argument that Ministers needed a “safe space” and said that this was consistent with what the UK’s COBRA group – which is more comparable to the island’s Emergencies Council - does.
The final decision only to release a very small portion of the minutes – made last Thursday – was taken by “two senior staff members of the Government of Jersey, independent of the original decision-making process.” Their names or positions have not been disclosed.
“Having undertaken extensive work reviewing each set of Minutes for the Competent Authorities meetings, Emergencies Council meetings and the Council of Ministers meetings, the Review Panel considered that some information should have been provided to the requester, albeit limited in certain areas as, as either no exemption was originally applied to the Minutes or that information was already in the public domain at that point. However, the Review Panel concluded that Article 35 was still engaged.”
Video: The Chief Minister chairing an early Emergencies Council meeting about covid-19 in 2020.
Express had also requested the minutes of meetings of Emergencies Council meetings and those of the Council of Ministers during the period.
The information released in respect of the former largely only related to approvals of previous meeting minutes.
The only detailed information released in respect of the Council of Ministers’ meetings related to plans for the Liberation 75 celebrations.
Chief Scrutineer Senator Kristina Moore has previously called out the Government for an apparent lack of transparency in their decision-making.
Despite being officially responsible for reviewing the Government’s decision-making and making recommendations, she said her panel had only been given access to agendas and papers from CAM and Emergencies Council meetings – but never full minutes.
Since Express’s original request, further questions have been raised over CAM decisions taken against medical advice.
Scrutiny recently challenged Ministers when STAC minutes from 7 June reflected medics’ concerns about CAM’s desire to relax travel rules given the risks posed by the Delta variant.
Medical Director Dr Patrick Armstrong was clear that it was too soon to “declare victory” against covid and relax the policy by removing the amber travel category, with the minutes noting that most members of the advisory panel “were not comfortable” with removing the classification.
Ministers nonetheless pressed ahead with the move.
Islanders have also queried why mask-wearing in public spaces was unexpectedly removed as a legal requirement in early June – only to return just over a month later last week.
CLICK HERE for the minutes released so far.
Who are the ‘Competent Authority Ministers’?
CAM is the name of the small group of Ministers that, legally, have the final say on all covid restrictions.
It is made up of the Chief Minister, Health Minister, Economic Development Minister, External Relations Minister, Infrastructure Minister and Home Affairs Minister.
The Treasury and Education Ministers are not statutory members, but were invited when the importance of their portfolios in relation to covid-19 measures became apparent.
The Chief Minister has previously said that this small group will not be disbanding and will continue to take decisions until the global covid crisis is over.
Are they the same as COBRA?
The make-up of COBRA depends on the nature of the emergency being discussed, but is not simply made up of politicians. While it will be chaired by a Senior Minister, it also includes a mixture of high-ranking officials and agency personnel.
The island’s Emergencies Council, which includes civil servants, the Bailiff, Attorney General and Lieutenant Governor, more closely resembles the UK's COBRA.
Why do people want to see CAM minutes?
The pandemic has put unprecedented restrictions on all of our lives on a scale not seen since the Occupation, as many reflected last year.
While medics and experts sit as the Scientific and Technical Advisory Cell (STAC) and come up with advice, the power to take final decisions is concentrated in the power of a very small group of Ministers.
As these Ministers are elected politicians, many argue that their deliberations should be open to public scrutiny, not only so we can understand their rationale for decisions, but to understand what is being done in our name.
Many people have questioned the extent to which Ministers have considered the economy versus covid in their deliberations – releasing their meeting minutes would help us understand this.
Why are STAC’s minutes in the public domain but not CAM’s?
Amid calls for greater transparency, States Members voted in favour of having STAC’s minutes published last summer – so it is now a legal requirement.
Even though none of the members of STAC are elected, it means that every single member’s views on each issue that comes before it – whether lockdown, mask, economy or vaccine-related – are available to be scrutinised by the public.
CAM, meanwhile, are under no legal obligation to do so.
That could change, however, if a States Member is willing to ask for a vote on the matter.
Why won’t the Government just release them anyway?
While doing so was considered following Express’s application under the Freedom of Information Law, it was decided that the “public interest test” was not met.
The Government says that releasing the information would compromise CAM’s “safe space” in which to make decisions and “reveal potential disagreements on details of policy”, which they said could ultimately “undermine the working of Government.”
It continued: “Ministers must be at liberty to express their views frankly and candidly, without the fear of their views being automatically or even potentially reported in public, otherwise they might express their views less vigorously or more circumspectly, or even feel restrained from voicing them at all, for fear that they will be represented in the media, now or in the near- future, in a way that is damaging to either themselves, the government, or the island.
“…The risk, if publication takes place, is that discussion between Ministers (and officials) become stilted and constrained… by the knowledge that such discussions could be made public and decision-making would not have the benefit of the full range of freely expressed opinions to inform it.”
Further arguments against the release of the minutes relate to the fact that they may contain legal advice – which is privileged – and information that may prejudice their commercial interests or even “prejudice the economic interests of Jersey.”
CLICK HERE for the full explanation.
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