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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 4 - Long legal battle for transparency
 
openDemocracy first asked for copies of the Clearing House lists back in 2018. The Cabinet Office refused this Freedom of Information request but, 23 months later, in July 2020 the ICO finally decided that the lists – including the advice that the Cabinet Office provides on dealing with FOI requests – should be disclosed to the public. 

While the Cabinet Office eventually disclosed some material from the Clearing House list, it is keeping its advice to departments secret and is appealing against the ICO’s decision.

openDemocracy, represented by the law firm Leigh Day, will now be submitting evidence to an information tribunal hearing to determine whether this information about the Clearing House should be made public. 

According to ICO guidance, a public authority can only look up a requester’s identity if the request is repeated – potentially a vexatious request – or whether the cost of two or more requests made by the requester can be aggregated under FOI.  

The ICO has been aware of the Clearing House’s existence for some time. In 2005, the Clearing House’s annual budget was reported to be £700,000.

The Clearing House was initially housed within the then Department for Constitutional Affairs then later moved to the Ministry of Justice. In 2015, when the Cabinet Office took responsibility for freedom of information policy, the department also took over the Clearing House, despite concerns about its operation. 

The Cabinet Office has previously advertised roles to work in the Cabinet Office’s Clearing House. Specific responsibilities listed for the positions included “creating a weekly FOI tracker of new cases and releases”, and “forwarding drafts for clearance, reverting to departments with advice and negotiating redrafted responses”.  

But openDemocracy’s findings – and the upcoming tribunal case – have highlighted fresh and pressing concerns, including among rights advocates who campaigned for the initial, groundbreaking Freedom of Information legislation more than 15 years ago. The Campaign for Freedom of Information’s Katherine Gundersen has said: "It’s time the clearing house was subjected to proper scrutiny.

Meanwhile Gavin Freeguard, head of data and transparency at the Institute for Government, said that, 15 years after the Freedom of Information act came into effect, it was not right that the public was still having to fight to access information.

With delayed responses, more requests being rejected than ever before and these reports of a Clearing House it feels like we’re having to fight for the right to information all over again,” said Freeguard.

And all this at a time when it’s vital for politicians, the press and the public to be able to scrutinise government.

The Cabinet Office organises quarterly engagement meetings and biannual information rights forums with other government departments. openDemocracy sent an FOI requesting materials from these meetings and forums, but the request was denied.

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