The report authors say last year was the worst on record for “government secrecy”, with just 41 per cent of FOI requests to government departments and agencies granted in full – the lowest proportion since records began in 2005.
The report draws on official government data to show that between 2016 and 2020 the Cabinet Office granted the fewest (26%) and withheld the most (60%) requests across all of Whitehall.
The conclusions are from openDemocracy’s Access Denied report but this week the Cabinet Office dismissed its findings as “nonsense.”
In May, the Cabinet Office was criticised by the Information Rights Tribunal for a “profound lack of transparency.”
Following the ruling, the Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Select Committee launched an inquiry into the Cabinet Office’s implementation of the Freedom of Information Act 2000.
Committee chair William Wragg said: “The perceived opacity of how the FoI Clearing House operates has the potential to damage trust in governance and transparency legislation. As a matter of trust, we felt it is something that must be addressed at the earliest opportunity."
He said the committee would examine how FOI is "implemented at the heart of Government" and "whether these measures fit with the spirit of the Act".
The report also assessed how government departments dealt with FOI requests during 2020.
It found that last year the Foreign, Commonwealth & Development Office (FCDO) granted only 17 per cent of FOI requests in full, the lowest of any government department.
The Cabinet Office fared only slightly better with 23 per cent of FOI requests granted in full, followed by the Department for International Trade (DIT) and the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) – both on 26 per cent.
The next worst performers for FOI requests were the Department of Health and Social Care (DHSC) on 27 per cent, and Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA) on 28 per cent.
Last year, 13 per cent of all FOI requests to central government departments and agencies were not responded to within the statutory limit of 20 working days – the highest level since 2009.
The report claims that "the Cabinet Office is blocking requests from MPs about its use of public money to conduct political research".
It cites the case of former Brexit secretary, David Davis MP, who in 2020 asked for details of official research, conducted by polling companies with taxpayer money on behalf of the Cabinet Office, which may have been used to give the Government a “political advantage”. His request was eventually refused some months later.
Davis stated: “The Cabinet Office have obfuscated and delayed, and then deployed excuses shifting from it being too expensive to collate, to then saying the data is still being used to inform policy.”
Controversial Clearing House
Another area looked at by the report is the Clearing House run by the Cabinet Office, which is able to “function as a centralised early warning system for public interest disclosures under FOI”.
It says: “The Government now has central access to FOI requests that might damage its reputation and can take action to mitigate and manage them.”
The report calls for the Clearing House to be scrapped and for the Government to “make the ICO accountable to, and funded by, Parliament in order to ensure it has the autonomy afforded to other regulators and oversight bodies”.
A Cabinet Office spokesperson said: “This report is complete nonsense. It shows a total misunderstanding of the FOI Act and government processes, while misleading readers with outdated statistics.”
The spokesperson added: “As the public would expect, during 2020 government departments were dealing with an unprecedented pandemic. The focus was on saving lives and the NHS, and as the independent Information Commissioner's Office recognised this left fewer resources available to deal with FOI requests."
The FCDO and DHSC declined to comment, while DEFRA, DCMS and DIT did not respond to a request for comment.
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