Freedom of Information

Pioneering FOI peer calls for investigation into ‘Orwellian’ Cabinet Office unit

Lord Clark calls for inquiry in wake of openDemocracy’s revelations about the secretive unit ‘blacklisting’ journalists and blocking Freedom of Information

Peter Geoghegan
Peter Geoghegan
24 November 2020, 6.33pm
FOI architect Lord Clark
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Chris McAndrew, CC BY 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

A Labour peer who was instrumental in the Freedom of Information Act becoming law has called on the government to launch an investigation into a controversial unit that screens journalists’ FOI requests and obstructs the release of sensitive information.

As openDemocracy has revealed, the Cabinet Office runs a Freedom of Information ‘Clearing House’ that instructs other Whitehall departments on how to respond to requests. It also shares personal information about journalists in ways experts say could be breaking the law.

Lord Clark of Windermere described the Clearing House operation "outrageous" and called on the government to launch an investigation.

Freedom of Information requests are supposed to be ‘applicant-blind’, meaning it should not matter who makes the request. But government departments and public bodies have been referring ‘sensitive’ requests from journalists to the secretive unit in Michael Gove’s Cabinet Office.

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Clark, a former Labour minister and an architect of the FOI Act, said there needed to be "an inquiry into the operation of the Clearing House which would fully investigate its operation, whether journalists and others are being monitored or possibly even blacklisted and whether it undermines the applicant-blind principle of the act".

The activities of the Clearing House – detailed in a new report, Art of Darkness, by openDemocracy – has prompted concern across the political spectrum.

Conservative MP David Davis told openDemocracy: “This Clearing House is certainly against the spirit of that act – and probably the letter, too. Ministers should explain to the House of Commons precisely why they continue with this set-up in view of the fact that it is contradictory to the whole purpose of Freedom of Information.”

During a hearing of Parliament’s Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee on Tuesday, the Scottish National Party’s Ronnie Cowan asked about the status of the Clearing House.

“It is not within the remit of the Cabinet Office to display bias against individual journalists or publications. It is contrary to the best tradition of scrutiny and open democracy that we like to think exists in the UK. One of the core values of public service, the Nolan principles, is accountability. Those within the Cabinet Office should be reminded of that,” the SNP MP told openDemocracy.

Asked about openDemocracy’s revelations in Tuesday’s lunchtime lobby briefing, the prime minister’s spokesman said: “The consideration of FOI requests remains 'applicant-blind’.

"All FOI processes, including 'Clearing House', are fully compliant with all data protection rules. Its role is to act as an advice centre to ensure consistency across government," the spokesman added.

But data protection experts and others have all raised serious concerns about the operation of the Clearing House, where names of journalists are routinely shared across as many as seventy Whitehall departments and public bodies.

Green Party MP Caroline Lucas tweeted that the Clearing House operation was “sinister, undemocratic & Orwellian.

“Not content with delaying or trying to water down critical reports, this Government is now deliberately blocking freedom of information requests & drawing up a blacklist of the journalists who submit them,” Lucas tweeted.

The German-based Media Freedom Rapid Response (MFRR), which monitors, tracks and responds to media freedom violations across Europe, called for an investigation into the Clearing House operation.

“Across Europe, Freedom of Information legislation is an invaluable tool for holding governments to account. However, across the continent, oftentimes using the COVID-19 pandemic as cover, many governments are undermining the process,” said MFRR coordinator Nik Williams.

openDemocracy’s new report found that the Clearing House requires Whitehall departments to send it requests that are deemed to be potentially sensitive or too expensive to answer. The unit routinely instructs departments to submit to it drafts of proposed responses so that they can be vetted.

Lord Clark’s calls for an investigation add to the cross-party concerns about the Clearing House operation.

The one-time Labour minister – a long-standing champion of Freedom of Information - had previously hit out at his then prime minister Tony Blair for dragging his heels over the introduction of FOI legislation.

Blair later described himself as a “naive, foolish, irresponsible nincompoop” for passing Freedom of Information into law in 2000.

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