Freedom of Information: News

Cabinet Office announces review into controversial FOI unit

The FOI ‘Clearing House’ was criticised by a judge after openDemocracy won a landmark case against the government

Jenna Corderoy
Jenna Corderoy
14 September 2021, 3.43pm
The government is to review the Cabinet Office’s ‘Clearing House’ unit
Artur Widak/NurPhoto/PA Images

The UK government is set to review its ‘Orwellian’ unit that handles requests for information, following an investigation by openDemocracy.

A Cabinet Office minister, Chloe Smith, announced an “assessment of the role of the Clearing House”, which vets “sensitive” requests from journalists and others.

It comes after openDemocracy won a landmark court case against the government, amid allegations that the Clearing House was being used to “blacklist” journalists and campaigners.

In the ruling, the judge criticised the government’s “profound lack of transparency”, which it said may extend to ministers.

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Writing to William Wragg MP, chair of the Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee (PACAC), Smith said that the review would “identify if or where guidance might be improved or clarified”.

The committee is also currently holding its own inquiry into the Cabinet Office Clearing House, sparked by openDemocracy’s tribunal victory.

The Cabinet Office has repeatedly been criticised by the Information Commissioner’s Office, which regulates information rights in the UK, over lengthy delays.

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In her letter, Smith accused journalists of “incorrectly” claiming that the Clearing House “blacklists” individuals and blocks requests. But over the past year, openDemocracy has revealed the controversial ways in which the unit coordinates FOI responses from across government, and has tried to prevent information from being released.

In one case, the Clearing House actively discouraged the release of information about the infected blood scandal, which has been the subject of a long-running inquiry.

A request was sent to the Treasury asking for historic documents about litigation taken by haemophiliacs infected by HIV in the early 1990s. Requests are supposed to be replied to within 20 working days, but it was passed between departments for months, with the Clearing House advising the Treasury to hold off publication.

Politico also recently revealed how the Clearing House worked to block the release of documents to journalists, against the advice of the Department for International Trade’s own information officers.

And a Times journalist found that one of his FOI requests to the Environment Agency was flagged to the Clearing House as “sensitive because the customer is a journalist”. Government departments that received requests from The Times for details about databases were advised by the Clearing House to reject them as the requests “appears to have no discernible purpose”.

The judge criticised the government’s ‘profound lack of transparency’

Documents unearthed by openDemocracy show that Whitehall departments have previously been told to seek advice from the Clearing House for FOI requests from “news media, MPs, organised campaigns and groups”.

However, Smith claimed: “All FOI requests are treated exactly the same, regardless of the identity or occupation of the requester.”

She said the Cabinet Office would review the practices of the Clearing House under “successive administrations”, having first been established in 2005. It will “provide any recommendations for improvement and further guidance”, although it is yet to be announced who will be leading the review.

Dr Ben Worthy of Birkbeck College, who wrote a book about the impact of FOI, said: “I hope the review will be transparent and open, and will shed more light on what the Clearing House does, as it's the lack of information about the Clearing House and what it actually does that has hampered past investigations.”

The Cabinet Office declined to comment further.

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