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UK government running ‘Orwellian’ unit to block release of ‘sensitive’ information

Secretive Cabinet Office 'Clearing House' for Freedom of Information requests also accused of “blacklisting” journalists; openDemocracy launching a legal bid for transparency
 
Peter Geoghegan/Jenna Corderoy/Lucas Amin
 
Part 1
 
The British government has been accused of running an ‘Orwellian’ unit in Michael Gove’s office that instructs Whitehall departments on how to respond to Freedom of Information requests and shares personal information about journalists, openDemocracy can reveal today [23 Nov. 2020]. 

Experts warn that the practice could be breaking the law – and openDemocracy is now working with the law firm Leigh Day on a legal bid to force Gove’s Cabinet Office to reveal full details of how its secretive ‘Clearing House’ unit operates. 

Freedom of Information (FOI) requests are supposed to be ‘applicant-blind’: meaning who makes the request should not matter. But it now emerges that government departments and non-departmental public bodies have been referring ‘sensitive’ FOI requests from journalists and researchers to the Clearing House in Gove’s department in a move described by a shadow cabinet minister as “blacklisting”. 

This secretive FOI unit gives advice to other departments "to protect sensitive information", and collates lists of journalists with details about their work. These lists have included journalists from openDemocracy, The Guardian, The Times, the BBC, and many more, as well as researchers from Privacy International and Big Brother Watch and elsewhere.

The unit has also signed off on FOI responses from other Whitehall departments – effectively centralising control within Gove’s office over what information is released to the public.

Conservative MP David Davis called on government ministers to “explain to the House of Commons precisely why they continue” with a Clearing House operation that is “certainly against the spirit of that Act - and probably the letter, too.” 

Labour shadow Cabinet Office minister Helen Hayes said: “This is extremely troubling. If the cabinet office is interfering in FOI requests and seeking to work around the requirements of the Act by blacklisting journalists, it is a grave threat to our values and transparency in our democracy.

Details of the Clearing House are revealed in a new report on Freedom of Information published today by openDemocracy

‘Art of Darkness’ finds that the UK government has granted fewer and rejected more FOI requests than ever before – with standards falling particularly sharply in the most important Whitehall departments. 

The Clearing House circulates a daily list of FOI requests to up to 70 departments and public bodies that contains details of all requests that it is advising on. This list covers FOI requests about “sensitive subjects” as well as ‘round robin’ requests made to multiple government departments.

Press freedom campaigners have sharply criticised the Clearing House operation and have called for full transparency.

Michelle Stanistreet, NUJ general secretary, said: "The existence of this clearing house in the Cabinet Office is positively Orwellian. It poses serious questions about the government's approach to access to information, its attitude to the public's right to know and the collation of journalists’ personal information."

Jon Baines, a data protection expert at the law firm Mishcon de Reya and chair of the National Association of Data Protection Officers, said that he was “far from assured that the operation of the Clearing House complies with data protection law.

Data protection law requires, as a basic principle, that personal data be processed fairly and in a transparent manner – on the evidence that I have seen, I do not feel that the Clearing House meets these requirements," Baines added.

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