Freedom of Information: News

UK government must abolish ‘pernicious’ unit blocking FOI requests, says senior Tory

David Davis said Cabinet Office’s ‘Clearing House’ unit should be scrapped, and criticised ‘political strategy’ of withholding information

Adam Bychawski
23 April 2021, 12.39pm
Cabinet Office secretary Michael Gove has faced calls for an inquiry into how FOIs are handled
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REUTERS/Henry Nicholls

A senior Conservative MP has called on the UK government to "abolish"  an 'Orwellian' unit accused of interfering with Freedom of Information (FOI) requests.

Last year, openDemocracy revealed that the 'Clearing House' unit within the Cabinet Office instructs Whitehall departments on how to respond to FOI requests and shares personal information about journalists.

Former Brexit secretary David Davis said that the Clearing House’s screening of FOI requests was a "pernicious action" and  that the unit should be abolished, during an openDemocracy live discussion on Tuesday.

Labour MP John McDonnell told the panel that government obfuscation in response to FOI requests had become an “art form” and that “we are in real danger of the water closing over” FOI legislation.

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FOI requests are supposed to be ‘applicant blind’, meaning it should not matter who makes the request. But emails obtained by openDemocracy showed that the Cabinet Office is collating lists of journalists with details about their work and intervening when information about "sensitive subjects" is requested. 

The FOI act gives people ‘the right to know’, which means that anyone can ask a public authority – from ministerial departments to parish councils – to disclose the information they hold.

The UK government has granted fewer and rejected more FOI requests than ever before – with standards falling particularly sharply in the most important Whitehall departments, according to a report published by openDemocracy earlier this year.

Davis said that the Freedom of Information Act, which came into force in 2005, has "weakened over time as Whitehall has learnt new tricks". 

"The avoidance of Freedom of Information has become a political strategy in its own right," he said.

In February, more than a dozen current and former Fleet Street editors signed an openDemocracy open letter calling for “urgent action” to protect FOI.

This month, the Treasury refused a request to publish text messages the former prime minister David Cameron sent to chancellor Rishi Sunak lobbying on behalf of his employer Greensill Capital, saying they were sent with an “expectation of confidence”.

Lord David Clark, a former Labour minister and chief architect of the Freedom of Information Act, said that he hears "almost daily" about public bodies refusing to abide by the law or failing to meet the 20 working days response deadline. 

“I’m afraid that we can save the day but it’s going to mean a lot of us working very hard over the months and years ahead to get back even [to] where we were ten years ago – let alone to where we want to go,” Clark said at the openDemocracy event.

Davis said that rather than a "presumption to withhold" information among public bodies, there should be  a "duty to disclose". 

National Union of Journalists general secretary Michelle Stanistreet, who was also on panel, seconded the proposal and added that the current exemption for commercially sensitive information should be rescinded.

John McDonnell said that the regulatory bodies overseeing FOI legislation had "been rendered ineffective in many people's eyes".

He said that the Information Commissioner's Office, which handles complaints about FOIs, should be given adequate resources, and blamed a “political decision based upon this culture of secrecy” for its ineffectiveness.

McDonnell said a "culture of secrecy has developed in government", which combined with "a decline in the number of independent journalists able to investigate these matters" had created a "maelstrom" for accountability.

He added that parliamentary bodies also needed to be strengthened to hold the government to account.

"The select committee process in Parliament, no matter what prism, is an effective way of opening up debate within Parliament on the basis of solid information. I think there needs to be more resources applied to select committees, so they can then be more exhaustive in their inquiries," he said.

In response to the openDemocracy’s February letter, Cabinet Office minister Chloe Smith said that, "openDemocracy’s characterisation of the government’s approach is tendentious.” 

She added: “The government takes its obligations under the Freedom of Information Act and Data Protection Act seriously, and routinely discloses information beyond the requirements under the Freedom of Information Act."

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