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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 2 - 'Art of Darkness’: the worst offenders
 
The new report published by openDemocracy paints a disturbing picture of the state of Freedom of Information in Britain. 

In 2019, central UK government departments granted fewer and rejected more FOI requests than ever before. In the last five years, the Cabinet Office – as well as the Treasury, Foreign Office and Home Office – have all withheld more requests than they granted, according to the report.

The Cabinet Office – which is the government department responsible for Freedom of Information policy – has one of the worst records on access to information. Last year, Michael Gove’s department was the branch of Whitehall most likely to have its decisions referred to the Information Commissioner’s Office, which regulates information rights in the UK.

New analysis by openDemocracy also shows that some public bodies are cynically undermining requests for information by failing to respond to requests in any way – a tactic described in openDemocracy’s report as ‘stonewalling’. Decision Notices, which are issued by the Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) about stonewalling, have increased by 70 per cent in the last five years. Again, the Cabinet Office is a repeat offender. 

The study reveals that the ICO fully or partially upheld complaints about mishandled requests in 48 per cent of its Decision Notices last year: the highest proportion in five years.

Yet the ICO’s capacity to investigate complaints and enforce the Act is diminishing. The regulator has seen its budget cut by 41 per cent over the last decade, while its complaint caseload has increased by 46 per cent in the same period.

The ICO’s enforcement may also be hampered by its governance structure – under which it is accountable on FOI to the Cabinet Office. Michael Gove’s department also is involved in setting the ICO’s annual budget.

Responding to openDemocracy’s questions about the Clearing House, a government spokesperson said:

"The Cabinet Office plays an important role through the FOI Clearing House of ensuring there is a standard approach across government in the way we consider and respond to requests."

With increasing transparency, we receive increasingly more complex requests under Freedom of Information. We must balance the public need to make information available with our duty to protect sensitive information and ensure national security."

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