Freedom of Information: News

Campaigners, MPs demand investigation into UK government's secretive FOI unit

The National Union of Journalists, Campaign for Freedom of Information and others call for inquiry in wake of openDemocracy’s legal victory

Peter Geoghegan
Peter Geoghegan
15 June 2021, 9.34am
Michael Gove's department, the Cabinet Office, has been forced to hand over information about its Clearing House unit
Russell Hart / Alamy Stock Photo

A raft of press freedom and transparency campaigners have called on British parliamentarians to launch an inquiry into a secretive Whitehall unit amid growing concerns about secrecy at the heart of government.

The National Union of Journalists, English PEN, mySociety, the Campaign for Freedom of Information, and the European Centre for Press Freedom have all separately written to the Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee (PACAC). These organisations are calling for an investigation to be opened into the Clearing House, a controversial Cabinet Office unit which has been accused of ‘blacklisting’ Freedom of Information (FOI) requests from journalists.

openDemocracy has also written to the PACAC – which is chaired by Tory MP William Wragg – as has Labour MP Navendu Mishra, who had previously questioned Michael Gove about the Clearing House operation at the committee.

The demands for an investigation come in the wake of openDemocracy’s recent legal victory, which forced the Cabinet Office to disclose information about the Clearing House operation run by Gove’s department.

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After a three-year battle, Judge Chris Hughes found that the documents the Cabinet Office presented in court about the Clearing House unit had “misled” the tribunal. He added that there is a “profound lack of transparency about the operation”, which might “extend to ministers”.

In the wake of the judgement, Labour shadow Cabinet Office minister Angela Rayner demanded that prime minister Boris Johnson’s independent standards advisor launch an investigation into whether Gove had broken the ministerial code in his statements to Parliament about the secretive FOI unit.

Asked about the Clearing House at a PACAC hearing in December 2020, Michael Gove said, “The idea that there is a secret Clearing House or any sort of blacklist is ... not correct.”

The Cabinet Office minister maintained that “all freedom of information requests are treated in exactly the same way”.

But investigations by openDemocracy have shown that the Clearing House has blocked the release of information and circulated lists of journalists across Whitehall in ways that experts say could break the law.

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In recent days Politico has revealed that the Department for International Trade (DIT) has been coordinating responses to Freedom of Information requests with the Clearing House based in part on the identity of the applicant – in apparent breach of FOI rules.

Emails sent in error to Politico showed an FOI request, flagged as “high risk” and sent to the international trade department, was passed to the Clearing House for advice. It is understood that the Cabinet Office unit explicitly instructed staff to block the release of documents against the advice of information officers in the DIT.

Research by openDemocracy suggests most FOI requests sent to the Clearing House have come from journalists and researchers.

A report in the Times suggested that the public administration and constitutional affairs committee is set to order an investigation into the Clearing House when MPs meet today.

In a letter to the PACAC chair, William Wragg, NUJ general secretary Michelle Stanistreet said she is concerned that Clearing House “amounts to illegitimate monitoring and risks journalists being put on a ‘blacklist’”.

“The media industry is united in backing a campaign to expand the right to information and secure greater transparency in public life. We want our government to be less secretive, not more.

Blocking of journalistic scrutiny ‘disturbing’

“That is why the existence of a so-called Clearing House, profiling requests, stonewalling requests and essentially thwarting and blocking journalistic scrutiny is so disturbing and outrageous,” Stanistreet added.

In a letter to the PACAC, Maurice Frankel, director of the Campaign for Freedom of Information, said that it was “a matter of concern that the Cabinet Office, which deals with its own requests so negligently, is responsible for advising other departments on their requests.”

Frankel called on the committee to “examine the wider question of whether the Information Commissioner [which regulates FOI] could do more to address the chronic delays that prevent the timely release of information.” The long-standing FOI campaigner noted that while the ICO’s data protection role is regularly examined, “its FOI role has not been subject to parliamentary scrutiny since the Justice Committee’s post-legislative scrutiny of the FOI Act in 2012.”

Daniel Gorman, the director of the writers’ campaign organisation English PEN, stated that “a robust freedom of information regime is indispensable to a healthy democracy and an environment conducive to free speech”, adding that he was “deeply concerned at the systemic failures in our FOI regime exposed by openDemocracy and recognised by judge Chris Hughes”.

Mark Cridge, chief executive of the charity MySociety, wrote: “we are concerned that the government is systematically failing in its duty to comply with FOI … an inquiry is necessary to uncover any structural failures in compliance with the law.” Earlier this year MySociety published a report warning that FOI was in danger of “sliding into obsolescence”.

In February, a dozen current and serving Fleet Street editors and more than 100 journalists signed an openDemocracy open letter calling for an “urgent” investigation into the Clearing House and operation of FOI in Whitehall.

Speaking at the time of openDemocracy’s open letter, Wragg said that there was “no excuse for denying journalists – or any members of the public – access to information that should be freely available by law”.

Responses to FOI requests have fallen to their lowest levels since the act was brought into force a decade and a half ago. The Cabinet Office is the worst-performing department.

A Cabinet Office spokesperson said last week: “A Clearing House function has existed since 2004 to help ensure there is a consistent approach across government to requests for information, which go to a number of different departments or where requests are made for particularly sensitive information.

“We remain committed to transparency and always balance the need to make information available with our legal duty to protect sensitive information.”

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