Cabinet Office finally kicks off clearing house review eight months after announcing it

Plans for in-house investigation of FoI unit published the night before critical PACAC report is released
Sue Langley. Photo: Gov.uk

By Tevye Markson

29 Apr 2022

The Cabinet Office has finally unveiled details of its in-house review of the Freedom of Information clearing house, eight months after announcing it and just hours before an inquiry into the secretive unit was published.

The department published two documents last night on its website without fanfare ahead of today’s Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs report, one revealing who would conduct the review and the other setting out what the probe would look to uncover.

Sue Langley, the lead non-executive director at the Home Office, will lead the internal review, which will explore the effectiveness of the clearing house, whether it is operating within the law, and if there is enough public information about the unit.

Established in 2004, the clearing house is responsible for coordinating responses to certain FoI requests across government. The Cabinet Office announced its intention to review the unit in August last year a few months after PACAC launched its own inquiry but released no information on the in-house examination until last night.

The PACAC report criticised the Cabinet Office for its “substandard” leadership on FoI and its lack of transparency about the clearing house.

Cabinet Office minister Nicholas True confirmed Langley’s appointment in a letter to the NED published on GOV.UK, in which he said: “I have every confidence that you will be able to bring your wealth of experience to provide the independent challenge necessary to address the concerns that have been raised.”

The Cabinet Office previously rejected an offer from the Information Commissioner’s Office to audit the unit, a decision PACAC called “misjudged” in today’s report.

PACAC called for the Cabinet Office to rethink its decision to turn down ICO’s offeri, but the committee’s request was rejected before it had even been published.

The review will seek to answer:

  • Whether the Clearing House’s operations are proportionate and effective
  • If the unit is operating in line with legislation, including GDPR and the Data Protection Act, and ICO guidelines
  • Whether there is sufficient public information available about the operation of the clearing house. And if not, what further information should be published

The review will also look into whether the “applicant blind” principle for FoIs is well understood and followed across government, according to the terms of reference.

The Cabinet Office has claimed that all requests are considered without officials knowing the identity of the requester. But the PACAC report found that departments had referred requests to the unit because they came from journalists or highlighted the name and profession of a requester whilst making a decision.

Langley, a former chief executive of the now-defunct UK Trade and Investment Financial Services Organisation, will also give recommendations on other areas where the clearing house can improve FoI practice across government.

Lord True said the Cabinet Office will fully support Langley in carrying out the review and provide access to the people and documents she needs in her investigation.

The report is expected to be completed before parliament’s summer recess on 22 July.

He said Langley’s findings will be sent to Cabinet Office, which will then publish a summary “as soon as possible” afterwards.

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