Freedom of Information: Investigation

Revealed: Government’s ‘Orwellian’ unit blocked infected blood scandal disclosure

Campaigner whose father died of HIV calls secrecy ‘outrageous’; staff in Michael Gove’s Cabinet Office cited Chilcot Inquiry while delaying Freedom of Information requests

Peter Geoghegan Jenna Corderoy
Peter Geoghegan Jenna Corderoy
10 December 2020, 7.00am
Inside Michael Gove' 'Orwellian' unit
WIktor Szymanowicz/NurPhoto/PA Images

A secretive Cabinet Office unit blocked the release of sensitive files about the contaminated blood scandal that claimed the lives of thousands across Britain, openDemocracy can reveal today.

The information was requested under the Freedom of Information Act by a campaigner whose father died in 1993 after being infected with HIV by the National Health Service.

The ‘Clearing House’ unit encouraged the Treasury to avoid releasing historic documents about litigation taken by haemophiliacs infected by HIV in the early 1990s – including a private acknowledgement from then Conservative health secretary, Ken Clarke, that some health authorities had been negligent when treating haemophiliacs with contaminated blood.

The UK government has maintained that the controversial unit in Michael Gove’s Cabinet Office – revealed in a new report by openDemocracy last month – acts “as an advice centre” for Whitehall departments “to ensure consistency” in responses to Freedom of information (FOI) requests.

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But the Clearing House actively discouraged the release of sensitive information about the infected blood scandal, which has been the subject of a long-running inquiry. It has been dogged by suggestions that documents have been withheld or deliberately misplaced.

In 2018, blood inquiry campaigner Jason Evans sent an FOI to the Treasury for historic files. The Treasury was keen to comply but staff in Michael Gove’s department said the information needed to be "managed" - comparing the situation to the Chilcot Inquiry into the Iraq War - and warned that former ministers “will be very sore” about the disclosure of information about their time in office, according to internal email correspondence obtained by openDemocracy.

We are piecing together one of the biggest UK cover-ups to have taken place in a generation

Jason Evans, infected blood campaigner

Evans, who was just four years old when his father, a haemophiliac, died after being infected with HIV, established the Factor 8 campaign group and has been closely involved in the ongoing Infected Blood Inquiry. He described the Clearing House’s behaviour as “frankly outrageous”.

“It's intolerable to me that so many have been killed due to Whitehall action and now we're having to fight for answers and being delayed in the process due to Whitehall action,” Evans told openDemocracy.

“Slowly but surely, I believe we are piecing together one of the biggest UK cover-ups to have taken place in a generation.”

Conservative MP David Davis said: “It is an exquisite irony that the department that is charged with upholding Freedom of Information is actively blocking it.

“Particularly when it comes to people who have been poorly treated by the state after a major state error: the very thing that Freedom of Information is supposed to expose and deter.”

Lord David Clark, architect of the original FOI Act, repeated his recent calls for an investigation into the Clearing House operation.

“This adds further weight to the need to find out exactly what is going on. The time is right for a full investigation.”

The Cabinet Office declined to answer specific questions and instead repeated the statement it made last week saying that the government is committed to transparency and the Clearing House ensures a standard approach in the way FOI requests are considered and responded to.

Separately, the Information Commissioner’s Office received a complaint about the Clearing House two years ago but chose not to investigate.

‘As we tried to do with Chilcot’

In May 2018, Jason Evans submitted a Freedom of Information request to the Treasury a file from the early 1990s called “31/12/1991, Health risks and special initiatives: haemophiliacs and Acquired Immunodeficiency Syndrome (AIDS), ST-HS J/0034/001 PART B”.

Rather than respond to his request directly, the Treasury sent the FOI to the Clearing House who asked to see drafts of any responses before they were sent to Evans.

Correspondence between the Clearing House and the Treasury paints a picture of continual foot-dragging and obstruction by the secretive FOI unit. The Treasury told the Clearing House that it was “keen to release the information” but numerous times over a number of months Cabinet Office staff urged against immediate disclosure.

The Clearing House cautioned the Treasury to “bear in mind whether releasing information might prejudice the course of the inquiry. We would like to see draft responses.” The Cabinet Office, which runs the Clearing House, is also the sponsor of the Infected Blood Public Inquiry.

FOI requests are supposed to be replied to within 20 working days but over a series of months Evans’ request was passed over and back between the Treasury and the Clearing House. The unit repeatedly advised the Treasury to hold off publication.

It is an exquisite irony that the department that is charged with upholding Freedom of Information is actively blocking it

David Davis, Conservative MP

On August 6, almost three months after Evans’ request, the head of the Clearing House, Eirian Walsh Atkins, wrote that “the information is very much of its time, and is unpalatable when viewed alongside the Inquiry and the very many letters I know you will have read from infected parties”.

The following week the Cabinet Office’s director general of propriety and ethics, Sue Gray, wrote: “Personally I would favour the Inquiry releasing the information in a managed way (as we tried to do with Chilcot).

“The HMT team will need to do a lot of consultation with former Ministers who I suspect will be very sore about this. Much better to do as part of a release with the Inquiry. And I would use [Section]31 for now. Can always revisit if goes to ICO,” Gray added.

Another official said that he “liked the idea” of waiting for the National Archives to publish the documents. This idea was dropped when it emerged that the files were not being transferred to the National Archive and that “were it not for the (infected blood) review they would be destroyed.”

The information, eventually released to Evans in October 2018, includes an official read-out of a conversation from 1990 between Ken Clarke and the chief secretary of the Treasury about a legal case taken by haemophiliacs infected by HIV. In the course of the conversation the then health secretary was reported to have said “that some of the cases against health authorities” were “in fact straightforward medical negligence cases.”

The infected blood inquiry, which began in 2017, has been dogged by questions over access to official documents. In September, the Treasury was criticised for refusing to publish key documents about the treatment of haemophiliacs infected by the NHS with HIV on the grounds that it would be “disruptive” and the material might be “distorted” by the media. Around 3,000 haemophiliacs have died after being given contaminated blood imported from the US in the 1970s and 1980s.

Des Collins, a partner at Collins Solicitors who represents more than 1,400 families infected and affected by the contaminated blood scandal, said: “We’ve long been disappointed in the government’s approach to good faith requests under the Freedom of Information Act. Their promise of transparency to thousands of people infected and affected by the contaminated blood scandal appears never to have come to fruition.

“All the while, these families desperately await details of conduct that has lain hidden from scrutiny for up to 40 years. So much for ‘freedom’ of the information they are wholly justified in seeking. The Cabinet Office’s deliberate policy approach evidently fails to serve the public interest and has to stop.”

‘Orwellian unit’

The British government was last month accused of running an ‘Orwellian’ operation after a new openDemocracy report exposed how departments and non-departmental public bodies have been referring ‘sensitive’ FOI requests from journalists and researchers to the Clearing House. The Cabinet Office unit circulates lists of journalists across Whitehall, which legal experts say could be a breach of data laws.

openDemocracy can also reveal that the FOI regulator, the Information Commissioner, received a complaint about the Clearing House operation in 2018.

The complainant wrote to the ICO about “what appears to be an anti-transparency unit that monitors the activities of journalists, campaigners and politicians to help the government prevent the disclosure of information that might be considered damaging or embarrassing”. The regulator chose not to open an investigation.

openDemocracy, represented by the law firm Leigh Day, will be submitting evidence to an information tribunal hearing to determine whether information about the Clearing House should be made public.

The Clearing House has been in operation since the Freedom of Information Act came into force in 2005. FOI is supposed to be “applicant blind” – meaning it should not matter who makes a request – but new documents unearthed by openDemocracy show that Whitehall departments have previously been told to seek advice from the Clearing House for FOI requests from “news media, MPs, organised campaigns and groups”.

A government spokesperson, who declined to answer specific questions, said: "The Cabinet Office plays an important role through the FOI Clearing House of ensuring there is a standard approach across Government in the way we consider and respond to requests.

"The government is committed to its transparency agenda, routinely discloses information beyond its obligations under the FOI Act, and is releasing more proactive publications than ever before.

“With increasing transparency, we receive increasingly more complex requests under Freedom of Information. We must balance the public need to make information available with our duty to protect sensitive information."

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