The Cabinet Office must take a stronger leadership role in coordinating the handling of Freedom of Information requests, MPs have urged.
The Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee has called on the Cabinet Office to “drive a cultural shift” across government away from simply complying with the FoI act to actively supporting its principles, in a report released today.
MPs highlighted multiple examples of poor handling of FoI requests across government in its report, including departments using stalling tactics and targeting journalists, and urged the Cabinet Office to lead by example.
The committee also criticised the Cabinet Office’s lack of transparency about its FoI clearing house, which coordinates responses to certain FoI requests across government.
William Wragg, chair of PACAC, said: “FoI laws are a crucial part of our democracy, allowing citizens to hold government to account.
“The Cabinet Office should be championing transparency across government, but its substandard FoI handling and failure to provide basic information about the working of the coordinating body has had the opposite effect.”
PACAC launched its inquiry last June into the Cabinet Office’s handling of FoI requests after the government lost a legal battle over the secretive clearing house, in which a judge concluded there was a “profound lack of transparency” over its operations.
The Cabinet Office told the committee in August it would launch its own internal review, but it has taken eight months to name the person carrying out the review – which it did last night, ahead of PACAC’s report.
The department meanwhile rejected an offer of an independent audit by the Information Commissioner's office in September.
Underlining its call to lead by example, PACAC's report highlighted the Cabinet Office's poor record in responding to FoI requests, with the department missing the 20-day deadline for responding to requests more often than the average across government.
PACAC said it expects the Cabinet Office to lead by example and to “drive a cultural shift from mere baseline compliance with the FoI Act to a greater advocacy for the core principles… of the act through proactive leadership across government”.
The report welcomed recent efforts from the top of government to highlight the importance of FoI. Last spring, then-cabinet minister Michael Gove said he recognised “the importance of a fair and consistent approach to freedom of information and the role the legislation plays in upholding our democracy”, and his successor Stephen Barclay said in January that the government is “committed to transparency and maintaining the effectiveness of the FoI Act”.
But it said the government’s decision to exempt the new Advanced Research and Invention Agency, unveiled in February 2021, from FoI showed a concerning “slide away from transparency being viewed as helpful towards a view that it is a hindrance of government being able to get on with work” and called for a U-turn.
PACAC said its inquiries also uncovered numerous instances of the Cabinet Office and other departments acting in a way that “appears inconsistent with the spirit and principles” of the FoI Act.
The committee heard evidence of departments referring requests to the unit because they came from journalists, and of referrals highlighting the name and profession of a requester, despite claims from the Cabinet Office that all requests are considered without knowing the identity of the requester.
MPs were also told that departments had purposefully delayed requests. For example, a department had suggested using the public interest test – an exemption which gives a public body extra time to assess whether information should be released – as a potential stalling tactic.
Concern over ICO role
MPs also raised concern about the Cabinet Office's relationship with the ICO, which handles FoI disputes.
The data watchdog told the committee its resources are stretched due to decreasing budgets and increasing caseloads and said this is affecting its ability to deliver the FoI service.
More than 100 newspaper editors, MPs, journalists, celebrities and campaigners signed an open letter earlier this month calling on the information commissioner to fix Freedom of Information.
PACAC criticised the way responsibility for the ICO is split, with the Cabinet Office responsible for policy and the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport in charge of its budget.
The committee said both responsibilities should be held either by the Cabinet Office or DCMS.
A Cabinet Office spokesperson said: “This government remains fully committed to its transparency agenda, routinely disclosing information beyond its obligations under the FOI Act and releasing more proactive publications than ever before.”
The Cabinet Office said it is reviewing PACAC’s report and will consider its recommendations in its internal review into the clearing house function and the effectiveness of its cross-government work on FoI.