FOI Clearing House ‘Fuelling Culture Of Secrecy’

The “FOI Clearing House” based in the Cabinet Office instructed FOI specialists in Government departments not to release information that they otherwise would have judged could be divulged, the Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee heard this week. 

The Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee heard from Martin Rosebaum, former BBC political journalist and FOI specialist; George Greenwood, data journalist at the Times; and Jenna Corderoy, FOI specialist journalist at OpenDemocracy; who spoke of the challenges they face when submitting FOI requests to Government departments.

This hearing was part of PACAC’s inquiry into the Cabinet Office’s handling of FOI requests, including the “Clearing House” which has been accused of “fuelling a culture of secrecy” because of its role in determining how FOI requests are handled across Government.

In its own response to the inquiry, the NMA said democracy would be impeded if FOI requests from journalists were being vetted by the Cabinet Office.

Giving evidence to PACAC, Mr Greenwood spoke of how FOI is crucial to investigative reporting. He said: “You get information you can’t get any other way. The importance of this, as set out in the original Bill paper, improves Government. The information can highlight serious issues of corruption, state failure, abuses, etc.”

Mr Rosenbaum said: “FOIs are important for quite a lot of journalism, however the experience of FOI has been a mixture of being productive and very frustrating. They encounter a lot of obstruction, despite there being a legal right to get information out of a legal authority.”

Ms Corderoy, whose reporting uncovered the existence of the Clearing House, said FOIs are “incredibly important” and are needed “to support their writing” which is “important to the public, allowing those in power to be held to account and to scrutinise how public authorities are spending taxpayers money.

“This right is enshrined in legislation but is undermined by Government. Cabinet Office are fuelling a culture of secrecy, refusing requests that are clearly in the public interest.”

Ms Corderoy spoke of a request she submitted in August 2018, requesting a round robin list, which was rejected. She later appealed – a process that took three years to get resolved.

Mr Greenwood said it had also been revealed that a BEIS officer had nicknamed him “the ever-active Mr Greenwood” in an email to the Clearing House, which Mr Greenwood noted opposes the “applicant blind” policy, meaning the identity of the person who makes the request should not matter.

The Committee heard that FOI requests made by journalists to Government bodies are given special attention and directed to the Clearing House, effectively centralising control over what information is released to the public.

Ultimately, the Clearing House’s criteria appears to be focused upon information likely to attract publicity and anything from a media body –  counter to the applicant blind FOI process.

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 Committee heard. Mr Greenwood spoke of the long delays that come with FOI requests, which undermines the public’s right to information and journalists’ ability to break news.

Often journalists must wait months, sometimes years, to receive a response from Government when it should have taken 20 working days, without extension. Such delays have a chilling effect on publication, as news is a perishable commodity, the Committee was told.

Mr Rosenbaum also said that when speaking to FOI officers from various Government bodies, they had appeared willing to release information, but the Clearing House have told them not to, suggesting the Clearing House is working on its own agenda, making FOI officers to make decisions that they wouldn’t have made otherwise.

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. In addition, given that each department is responsible for justifying its own decisions on FOI requests, it raises the question as to why the Cabinet Office should direct them on what information to release, the Committee heard.