Freedom of Information: News

Cabinet Office’s actions ‘increase suspicion’ about secretive FOI unit, MPs told

The government department refused to allow a probe into its ‘Orwellian’ Clearing House unit in the wake of openDemocracy legal victory

Jenna Corderoy
Jenna Corderoy
26 November 2021, 2.44pm
Elizabeth Denham, the UK’s information commissioner, said she was ‘frustrated and disappointed’ in the Cabinet Office
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The Information Commissioner’s Office. CC BY-SA 4.0

The Cabinet Office’s refusal to subject itself to an official probe has “increased suspicion” about its secretive Clearing House unit, according to the UK’s information regulator.

Last year, openDemocracy revealed the existence of the Clearing House, which has been accused of ‘blacklisting’ Freedom of Information (FOI) requests from journalists.

Speaking to a parliamentary committee launched in the wake of openDemocracy’s investigations, the outgoing information commissioner, Elizabeth Denham, said her office had offered to carry out an audit of the Clearing House following openDemocracy’s tribunal victory earlier this year. The offer was rejected by the government.

“I think the Cabinet Office missed an opportunity there,” she told MPs at an inquiry held by the Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee (PACAC).

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Denham added that the Cabinet Office’s refusal had “increased suspicion of the Clearing House as opposed to allowing us in the doors as a regulator for us to reveal to the public how it actually operates”.

Earlier this year, a judge criticised the Cabinet Office for a “lacuna in public information” about how the Clearing House coordinates FOI requests referred to it by other government departments.

Since then, openDemocracy has discovered that the Clearing House was interfering with requests relating to the Grenfell Tower tragedy and that special advisers are allowed to ‘approve’ FOI replies.

Written evidence from the Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) also revealed that there are significantly more complaints made about the Cabinet Office – which is in charge of FOI policy – than any other central government department.

The ICO wrote that the “quality and accuracy of some request responses provided by the Cabinet Office remains unsatisfactory”, adding that it “remains concerned by the length of time taken by the Cabinet Office to provide a request response in some cases”.

Last month, openDemocracy revealed that 2020 was the worst on record for government secrecy, with just 41% of FOI requests sent to government departments and agencies in full. openDemocracy’s ‘Access Denied report’ found that some government departments have far lower FOI disclosure rates than others, with the Cabinet Office among the worst offenders.

In October, it was also revealed that the Cabinet Office is conducting its own internal review after blocking the offer of an external audit by the ICO.

‘Frustrated and disappointed’

Denham, who is set to leave her role next week, told MPs she was “frustrated and disappointed that the Cabinet Office turned us down with that offer”.

During the parliamentary inquiry, Denham revealed how the relationship between the ICO and the Cabinet Office had become “less frosty” in the past year, and so she “was quite surprised when our offer of conducting an audit was turned down”.

Denham also claimed that the Cabinet Office was “dismissive” of recommendations made in the ICO’s 2019 ‘Outsourcing Oversight’ report, which called for the FOI Act to be extended to private companies delivering public services. Denham said that she thought her last meeting with a Cabinet Office minister had been in 2018, adding: “I can say that I’ve had many, many meetings with ministers in other departments.”

Conservative MP David Davis also provided evidence to the PACAC inquiry, charting his difficulties in accessing information from the department. “The Cabinet Office has acted entirely improperly. Their wrongful application of exemptions has prevented Parliament and MPs from properly fulfilling their role as elected representatives of the people.”

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Further written evidence released by PACAC last week has revealed how the Clearing House told the Department for International Trade’s FOI team not to release information in response to a request. Screenshots obtained by a journalist show that when DIT officials disagreed with the Clearing House’s ruling, the Cabinet Office told them that they would need to “seek approval from Perm Sec” to go against the unit.

Writing for openDemocracy this month, Tommy Sheppard, a Scottish National Party MP who went to court to force the Cabinet Office to disclose polling information, said the department has “always sought to do no more than the minimum required – and, if they can get away with it, less than it.”

He added: “In a department like this there should be good faith endorsement of the principles of Freedom of Information. Currently that is sorely lacking.”

Earlier this month, openDemocracy reported how the campaign group Global Witness asked the Cabinet Office for a list of all COP26-related FOI requests it had received since January 2019. The list revealed that out of 55 requests, only eight were granted in full.

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