The Cabinet Office has denied accusations that its “clearing house” for Freedom of Information Act requests blocks queries from journalists and tells departments how they should respond to demands for information made under transparency legsislation.
Campaigners this week called for a parliamentary investigation into the government’s handling of FOI requests in light of concerns about journalists being blacklisted, requests not being dealt with on an “applicant blind” basis, and departments' use of “administrative silence”.
The openDemocracy group’s call was made in a letter to the chairs of parliament’s Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Select Committee and the Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Select Committee. It was backed by more than a dozen national-newspaper editors and former editors. Among those copied in were Cabinet Office minister Michael Gove and UK Information Commissioner Elizabeth Denham.
Other demands in the letter included better funding for regulator the Office of the Information Commissioner and a government rethink on expanding the scope of FOI laws to cover public contracts with private firms.
In a detailed response to openDemocracy, the Cabinet Office said it was committed to openness and transparency and that the “clearing house” function had existed in different forms since 2004, one year before the Freedom of Information Act 2000 came into effect.
It said responsibility for FOI policy had moved between the Department of Constitutional Affairs and the Ministry of Justice before reaching the Cabinet Office, where it now sits as part of the FOI and Transparency team and wider Cabinet Secretary Group.
The Cabinet Office said there was no standalone clearing house team and that coordination functions were carried out by a “small number” of staff members, all of whom had a range of other responsibilities.
“The clearing house function helps ensure there is a consistent approach across government to requests for information which impact or go to a number of different government departments – so-called round robins – or where requests are made for particularly sensitive information, including relating to national security or personal data,” it said.
“This is especially important for complex FOI requests where we are obliged to balance the need to make information available with our legal duties under the FOI Act to protect sensitive information.
“A coordination function ensures there is a consistent approach so all those submitting FOIs are treated in a similar and fair manner by departments.”
The Cabinet Office said the clearing house did not share the personal details of journalists, blacklist journalists or seek to obstruct others looking for information.
“The clearing house function provides advice,” the department said. “It does not direct departments on what they should do with individual FOI cases, nor does it direct departments to block FOI requests.”
Departments 'can prepare' for media interest from FOI responses
The department added: “The consideration of FOI requests is, and remains, applicant-blind. All FOI requests are treated exactly the same, regardless of who the request is from and their occupation.
“It would be unlawful for the Cabinet Office, or other departments, to blacklist enquiries from journalists and their requests are not treated differently to anyone else who sends FOI requests. It is appropriate for departments to prepare for possible media interest in information released under FOI, but this is separate from a decision on whether or not to release information.”
The Cabinet Office acknowledged the coronavirus pandemic had “stretched” government resources. But it said departments had responded to “almost 90%” of the 8,000-plus FOI requests received between July and September within the 20-day limit or a permitted extension.
The department said it anticipated a “marked improvement” in its FOI performance in the next quarter, despite an increase in the number of requests, because it had been streamlining processes for FOI handling.