NMA Welcomes PACAC Inquiry Into Cabinet Office Handling Of FOI

The News Media Association has welcomed a probe into the Cabinet Office’s handling of Freedom of Information requests including the “Clearing House” which determines how FOI requests are handled across Government.

In its response to the Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee’s inquiry into the Cabinet Office’s compliance and implementation of FOI laws, the NMA said democracy would be impeded if FOI requests from journalists were being vetted by the Cabinet Office.

“FOI requests are supposed to be ‘applicant blind’ meaning who makes the request should not matter,” the NMA said.  

“However, it is understood that FOI requests made by journalists to Government bodies are given special attention and directed to the Cabinet Office’s Clearing House, a department that determines how FOI requests are dealt with; effectively centralising control over what information is released to the public.

“Ultimately, the Clearing House’s criteria in respect of requests involving sensitive information appear to catch anything likely to attract publicity and anything from a media body. This practice is counter to the applicant blind FOI process and freedom of speech more broadly.”

The delays caused by the additional screening process that FOI requests from journalists are subjected to by the Clearing House creates another improper barrier to access, the NMA added, creating a “chilling effect on the publication of news which is “perishable commodity.”

The Cabinet Office plays a vital role in ensuring compliance with the FOI Act across Government, aiding complex FOI requests while also ensuring that sensitive information is handled appropriately.

“Consequently, one would expect that the Cabinet Office should lead by example, acting as a bastion of compliance with the Act and spearheading excellent handling of FOI requests. However, it is well documented that the Cabinet Office falls notably short of this,” the NMA said.

Government bodies have dealt with FOI requests for over 15 years, sufficient time for each Governmental body to garner expertise in handling FOI requests – making the Cabinet Office’s supervision superfluous, the NMA added.

“Moreover, given that each department is responsible for justifying its own decisions on FOI requests, it is unclear why the Cabinet Office should direct them on what information to release,” the NMA said.

“The implication is that the Cabinet Office and Clearing House’s roles and procedures in relation to FOI requests (such as the Round Robin List) keep Government departments in line, suppressing challenging FOI requests across the board.”