The Cabinet Office has rejected most of the recommendations made by MPs to improve the transparency of its Freedom of Information request handling.
The Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee has published the government’s response to its report on the Cabinet Office Clearing House, a team that vets FoI requests.
In April, PACAC called for more Cabinet Office to be more transparent about the Clearing House, to drive a cultural shift in how the government responds to FoI, and to accept an independent audit on the team.
The government has now rejected these recommendations, instead declaring its commitment to "full transparency", highlighting its recent record in responding to FoIs, and confirming its intention to continue its own review.
PACAC chair William Wragg said: “Our inquiry heard significant concerns that the Cabinet Office was not transparent with its handling of FoI requests.
“That is why we asked for more data to be published and called for an independent audit of its practices. It is disappointing that today's government response rejects our recommendations.”
To combat transparency concerns, PCAC had said the Cabinet Office should publish more data on its activities, including the number of referrals to the Clearing House split by department and month on a quarterly basis.
This was previously done when the unit was part of Ministry of Justice and the then-Department for Constitutional Affairs.
But the government said the current version of the Clearing House is simply a small-scale advisory function rather than a standalone unit, and so PACAC’s request would be “a disproportionate use of resources”. It said it will, however, consider whether there is enough public information available about the Clearing House’s operation in its internal review of the function.
The review itself was another topic of disagreement. The department, having rejected an offer from the Information Commissioner's office in September to audit the Clearing House, once again refused the idea, after PACAC had called for a rethink.
“We still have concerns that the Cabinet Office's refusal to open up to an audit by the regulator sets a poor example for the rest of Whitehall and will mean suspicions of FOI mismanagement will persist,” Wragg said.
The Cabinet Office appointed Home Office non-executive director Sue Langley to lead an inquiry into the Clearing House eight months after announcing it planned to review the function and just hours before PACAC’s own report was released.
But Wragg said the internal review “risks providing little comfort to many we heard from who have already lost trust in the system”.
Campaigners for better FoI have accused government of a "wholesale undermining of transparency" in its application of the act.
PACAC’s report, which followed a 10-month quest for answers on the Clearing House, 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 response, the government told the committee it routinely disclosed information “well beyond our FOI obligations” and released more proactive publications of data than ever before. It said it would “continue to look at how the range of information published can be improved and made as useful as possible to the public, press and parliament”.
The government rejected the committee’s request to reverse the exemption of the Advanced Research and Invention Agency, unveiled in February 2021, from FoI, saying its exemption was “debated extensively and agreed to by both Houses of Parliament” and it has “no plans to revisit this decision”.
PACAC also 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.
The government also rejected this suggestion, saying the current governance structure “helps to avoid any perception that there is a potential conflict of interest with FoI policy.”
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.
“Sue Langley is leading the internal review into the Clearing House function and will assess the operation and effectiveness of its cross-government work. She will set out her recommendations in due course.”