Freedom of Information: News

Boris Johnson’s government slammed by MPs over FOI 'Clearing House' secrecy

Parliamentary inquiry launched in the wake of openDemocracy's revelations condemns Cabinet Office's handling of Freedom of Information requests

Jenna Corderoy
Jenna Corderoy
28 April 2022, 11.22pm
An inquiry called for a 'cultural shift' towards transparency in government.
PA. All rights reserved.

Boris Johnson must reverse the government’s worrying “slide away from transparency”, an excoriating parliamentary report warns today.

Commissioned in the wake of a string of revelations by openDemocracy about a secretive Freedom of Information (FOI) 'Clearing House' within the Cabinet Office, the report is the harshest official criticism levelled at the government over transparency since the landmark FOI Act was passed in 2000.

MPs on the Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee (PACAC) said the Cabinet Office had “dragged its feet for too long” and called for the UK’s information watchdog to be hauled in for a “rigorous” review.

The committee said there was a “concerning trend” that transparency was seen as a “hindrance” by Whitehall officials.

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It said the Cabinet Office had labelled information requests from journalists as “sensitive”, and it called on the department to “drive a cultural shift” towards championing transparency.

In an apparent effort to head off criticism, the government yesterday appointed a civil servant to lead its own in-house review of the way it handles FOI requests.

But the official inquiry said the decision to block an official watchdog audit was “misjudged” and “disappointing”.

PACAC’s intervention follows a series of investigations by openDemocracy into a secretive unit inside the Cabinet Office – known as the Clearing House – which handles FOI requests.

The unit has been accused of blacklisting Freedom of Information (FOI) requests by journalists and campaigners, in breach of transparency laws.

Last year, openDemocracy won a landmark legal victory over the government– forcing it to reveal how sensitive information was blocked from publication.

A judge ruled there was a “profound lack of transparency” about the Clearing House unit, which “may extend to ministers”.

The ruling sparked the inquiry, whose findings are published today, led by Tory MP William Wragg.

In its report, PACAC warns there is “evidence of poor FOI administration in the Cabinet Office and across government which appears to be inconsistent with the spirit and principles of the FOI Act."

The Cabinet Office has dragged its feet for too long on this issue and must act now to remove suspicion.

William Wragg MP

The Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) watchdog, which regulates FOI, had previously offered to audit the Clearing House. But ministers ignored the committee’s call for the ICO to step in, and instead yesterday appointed a Home Office non-executive director, Sue Langley.

Commenting on the report, Wragg said the Cabinet Office “must act now to remove suspicion around the Clearing House, improve compliance with FOI laws and regain public confidence”.

He added: “As FOI policy owner and coordinating department, the Cabinet Office should be championing transparency across government, but its substandard FOI handling and failure to provide basic information about the working of the coordinating body has had the opposite effect. An internal review alone won’t be sufficient to restore trust.”

His committee has demanded that the audit be completed by October, with an action plan published by the end of the year. It also said the Cabinet Office should publish a “greater volume of data” on the Clearing House’s performance.

Ministers’ attack on openDemocracy

The committee’s report vindicates years of investigations by openDemocracy, which has led the way in exposing the abuse of transparency law.

But the government has consistently attacked our reporting.

Michael Gove described our investigations “ridiculous and tendentious” when he was cabinet secretary. But, under his watch, the department lost a legal battle with openDemocracy and was ordered to release embarrassing new details about its operation.

Last year, the government even took the extraordinary step of publishing a blog post trying to undermine openDemocracy’s journalism, describing our findings as “false” and “untrue”.

In one case, our report accused the government of failing to handle FOI requests in an “applicant-blind” manner, meaning that requests from journalists were facing tougher scrutiny.

The Cabinet Office said this allegation was false, saying: “All FOI requests are treated exactly the same, regardless of who the request is from.”

But today’s select committee report found “multiple examples” where this had not happened – including requests being flagged as “sensitive” because they were from investigative reporters.

By rejecting an independent review of its operation the Government has in effect indicated that positive reform is not on the agenda

John McDonnell MP

In 2020, our report ‘Art of Darkness’ revealed how the Cabinet Office’s Clearing House was undermining the public’s right to access information.

It led to nearly 50,000 openDemocracy readers and supporters signing a petition opposing government secrecy.

A second report, ‘Access Denied’, found that 2020 was the worst year on record for FOI transparency. It also revealed how the ICO is underfunded and failing on transparency enforcement.

Earlier this month, openDemocracy organised an open letter to the UK’s new Information Commissioner, calling on him to do more in holding ministers accountable. The letter was signed by more than 110 journalists and campaigners, including Guardian editor Kath Viner, Private Eye editor Ian Hislop and MPs from all the main political parties.

Today, PACAC’s report calls on the government to revisit its decision to exclude its new research agency, the Advanced Research and Invention Agency, from FOI laws.

It also said stronger rules were needed to stop ministers and government officials using private WhatsApp messages as a way of circumventing transparency laws. It called for “clearer cross-government guidance on the need to maintain public record to take into account the rise of private messaging systems”.

The former shadow chancellor John McDonnell, who is a member of PACAC, said that it was clear the Clearing House had been developed to “frustrate the exercise of this basic right”.

“Thanks to the persistence of journalists that prompted this Select Committee inquiry and report, the PACAC has managed to throw more light on the Clearing House operation. By rejecting an independent review of its operation the Government has in effect indicated that positive reform is not on the agenda.”

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