Cabinet Office censured by judge over lack of transparency on FOI requests

New allegations have been made against the Clearing House run by the Cabinet Office to deal with FOI requests, in the wake of a ruling against the government department.

(pic credit: Getty)
(pic credit: Getty)

It was reported at the weekend that the Department for International Trade identifies where FOI requests come from, in an apparent breach of rules stating that requests should be treated equally, irrespective of who makes them.

The issue came to light after emails with attachments detailing the cases being dealt with by the department’s FOI team were mistakenly sent to a Politico journalist.

The documents showed that some FOI requests were referred to the Cabinet Office’s Clearing House – which was attempting to prevent the release of documents to journalists against the advice of DIT civil servants, according to Politico.

This comes just weeks after the Cabinet Office was criticised by the Information Rights Tribunal for a “profound lack of transparency”.

The ruling, published last month, was the culmination of a long-running legal battle between the Information Commissioner’s Office, a journalist from openDemocracy, and the Cabinet Office over the Whitehall department’s refusal to release documents relating to the Clearing House.

'A lacuna in public information'

In his ruling, Judge Chris Hughes stated: “Co-ordination of Government activity is a key part of the work of the Cabinet Office, as is making the way government works more transparent. It is clear that over the years there has been a lacuna in public information about how these two important roles are brought together to ensure that government transparency is effective across the whole of government.”

He added: “The profound lack of transparency about the operation of the Cabinet Office might appear, from the material before this tribunal, to extend to Ministers.”

His ruling also said: “While the Cabinet Office has emphasised that individual departments as public authorities remain responsible for responding to FOIA requests, it is noteworthy that, while they do not follow the advice of Clearing House, Ms Atkins confirmed “they have to explain”. This provides an example of the level of scrutiny of other government departments by [the] Cabinet Office.”

In a statement to PRWeek, a Cabinet Office spokesperson said: “All FOI requests are treated exactly the same, regardless of who the request is from and their occupation. It would be unlawful for the Cabinet Office, or any other public authority, to blacklist or vet enquiries from journalists.”

They added: “Departments may refer round robin or requests for sensitive information to the Cabinet Office for advice on how to respond. Both the Department for International Trade and the Cabinet Office behaved entirely in line with ICO guidance and FOI law.”

The Cabinet Office has yet to respond to the ruling, but earlier this year set out its position on the Clearing House in a news story and subsequently created a web page about the unit.

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