Two Cabinet ministers are due to face questions from MPs after leading national newspaper editors united behind openDemocracy’s call for “urgent” action on the British government’s handling of Freedom of Information requests.
Julian Knight MP, Conservative chair of the influential Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Committee, which oversees press freedom, said: “It is concerning that questions have been raised about the openness and transparency of government,” after openDemocracy revealed details of a secretive unit inside Michael Gove’s Cabinet Office, which is responsible for Freedom of Information (FOI).
The ‘Clearing House’ unit, described as “Orwellian” by the head of the National Union of Journalists, is accused of profiling journalists who make FOI requests, and of blocking the release of ‘sensitive’ information.
Knight, a former journalist, added that he would “be raising these matters with [Digital, Culture, Media and Sport] secretary of state Oliver Dowden... The actions of government in enabling proper scrutiny of it must be beyond reproach.”
Meanwhile Conservative MP William Wragg, who chairs the Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee (PACAC), which oversees the Cabinet Office, said that his committee had “raised this issue with Michael Gove in December. We will follow up with him based on these reports, as there is no excuse for denying journalists – or any members of the public – access to information that should be freely available by law.”
In December, Gove claimed that the government treats all Freedom of Information requests in “exactly the same way”, adding: “They’re applicant-blind, so whether or not it’s a freelance journalist, someone working for an established title, or a concerned citizen.”
However, documents seen by openDemocracy appear to undermine this claim.
Senior Labour and SNP figures have also demanded action in the wake of the joint letter and openDemocracy’s reporting, which has shown that FOI response rates are at their lowest level since the introduction of the Freedom of Information Act 20 years ago.
Shadow Cabinet Office minister Rachel Reeves said: “Freedom of Information is absolutely crucial for more open government and to give taxpayers the power to scrutinise the contracts which their money is paying for.
“But this letter underlines just how badly this Tory government has weakened FOI, leading to a severe lack of transparency and accountability. This cannot go on.”
Labour has called for an expansion of the Freedom of Information Act, so that it also applies to public service contracts delivered by private firms. This is also a key demand of the openDemocracy letter, signed by the editors of the Times, Sunday Times, Guardian, Observer, Daily Telegraph, Financial Times and Mirror, as well as Paul Dacre, chief executive of Associated Newspapers.
Scottish National Party MP Ronnie Cowan, who sits on the PACAC, said: “FOIs are an important part of the process that reassures us all that governments are working in our best interest and are operating in a fair and legal manner.
“In these demanding times, when the public are being asked to adjust their lifestyles and sacrifice so much in the common interest… refusing to release information, or favouring those that have access, damages the public’s confidence,” Cowan added.
News of support across Fleet Street for openDemocracy’s public letter has been heavily covered in the British media this week, including in The Guardian, The Times and across the BBC. In a strongly worded leader column, The Times described the government’s “disdain for scrutiny” as “most disturbing” and called for an investigation into the Cabinet Office Clearing House operation.
The National Union of Journalists (NUJ) has called on journalists in the UK to submit ‘subject access requests’ in order to establish just how the government is managing Freedom of Information applications from the media, and what information they are holding about journalists and their requests.
Michelle Stanistreet, NUJ general secretary, said: “The government’s response to date has been woefully lacking. That’s why the NUJ is asking journalists to do what they do best and flush out what is really going on in the heart of government.
“Anyone who’s submitted FOI requests to government should now follow up with a subject access request that is linked to their original submission. We need to get to the bottom of how this secret Clearing House is operating and establish just how media requests are being treated."
openDemocracy is working with the law firm Leigh Day on a legal bid to force the Cabinet Office to reveal full details of how the Clearing House operates, and 40,000 people have also signed a petition to Michael Gove calling for urgent action.
A spokesman for the Cabinet Office previously told openDemocracy that the Clearing House “helps ensure a consistent approach to requests for information”.
He added: "This government remains fully committed to its transparency agenda, routinely disclosing information beyond its obligations under the FOI Act, and releasing more proactive publications than ever before.”