openDemocracyUK: News

UK government spent £40,000 hiding secretive Clearing House unit

Exclusive: The Cabinet Office has been accused of wasting taxpayer money on efforts to conceal a unit that helped block FOI requests

Jenna Corderoy
Jenna Corderoy
26 January 2022, 12.00am
The Cabinet Office has spent almost £40,000 on a legal battle to stop openDemocracy finding out about Clearing House
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openDemocracy. All rights reserved

The Cabinet Office spent tens of thousands of pounds trying to stop openDemocracy finding out about its ‘Orwellian’ Clearing House unit, the government has admitted.

The Clearing House has been accused of blacklisting journalists and blocking their Freedom of Information (FOI) requests. Investigations by openDemocracy have revealed how it helped suppress sensitive information on issues ranging from Grenfell Tower to the contaminated blood scandal.

SNP MP Tommy Sheppard said it was time for the Cabinet Office to “stop behaving like a rogue department”.

Sheppard, who has been trying to obtain copies of government polling on ‘Scottish attitudes to the Union’ from the Cabinet Office through FOI requests since June 2019, told openDemocracy: “This is further evidence, if any were needed, that not only is the Cabinet Office determined to keep the public in the dark, but it is charging them to maintain this veil of secrecy.”

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The Cabinet Office spent months fighting openDemocracy in 2020 and 2021 through an information tribunal to prevent the disclosure of information about the Clearing House. It has now admitted legal action cost the department £38,723.16.

openDemocracy won the case in April last year. Judge Chris Hughes excoriated the government in his ruling, saying documents the Cabinet Office presented in court about the Clearing House were "misleading" and noting a “profound lack of transparency about the operation”, which might “extend to ministers”.

The Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee (PACAC) subsequently launched a parliamentary inquiry into the operations of the Clearing House. But last week, the Cabinet Office's permanent secretary admitted his colleagues still hadn’t appointed anyone to lead the internal review they promised five months ago.

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Cabinet Office pledged to review a unit that blocked Freedom of Information requests. Five months on, it hasn’t even appointed an investigator

Author and historian Andrew Lownie has spent years fighting for the release of Lord Mountbatten’s diaries after his attempts were blocked by the Cabinet Office and Southampton University, which owns the archive.

Lownie told openDemocracy that both Southampton University and the Cabinet Office had refused to disclose their costs in appealing against the ICO’s decision to release the diaries.

He said: “Here is yet another example of the government wasting taxpayers’ money on trying to frustrate a legitimate FOI request. They complain they have not got the resources to respond to FOI requests, yet somehow find the resources to deny them.”

He added: “Good government depends on trust and transparency especially in difficult times. That is sadly increasingly lacking. If governments do not obey the law, why should the citizen?”

When openDemocracy revealed the existence of the unit in 2020, NUJ general secretary Michelle Stanistreet called it “Orwellian”.

In September, openDemocracy revealed how the UK government had spent at least half a million pounds on legal fees trying to prevent the release of information under FOI legislation over the past five years. 2020 was the worst year on record for government secrecy, with just 41% of FOI requests sent to government departments and agencies answered in full. openDemocracy’s ‘Access Denied’ report found the Cabinet Office itself was among the worst offenders.

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