Poor Handling Of FOI Requests Make it Harder For Journalists To Hold Government To Account

Greater transparency is needed from the government to restore trust in its handling of Freedom of Information requests, the Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee has said.

The committee’s inquiry into the Cabinet Office FOI “Clearing House,” received evidence of “poor” FOI administration by government which appears to be “inconsistent with the spirit and principles” of FOI law.

Delays to accessing public information frustrate FOI applicants and can significantly impact the relevance and media impact of news stories, in turn making it harder for journalists to hold the Government to account, MPs said.

The News Media Association joined with editors and campaigning groups in criticising the “Clearing House” and called for the committee to investigate the Cabinet Office’s handling of FOI requests.  

In its report, the committee urged the Cabinet Office to accept the Information Commissioner’s offer of an audit of the “Clearing House”, concluding that the government’s decision to reject the offer last year was “misjudged.”

The report is critical of the Cabinet Office’s failure to deliver on its promise of an internal review of the “Clearing House” which, despite being announced in August 2021, has yet to begin. It calls the delay “unacceptable.”

The probe found the government lacks a proactive approach that advocates for the FOI Act more generally and calls for greater leadership from the Cabinet Office as the sponsor department for the Act and FOI policy.

“The committee received multiple submissions from journalists and third sector bodies raising concerns about the Clearing House. These included: its poorly defined and vague remit, ambiguity over whether it is advising or directing departments, a lack of clarity over lines of accountability within the Clearing House, its location within the Cabinet Office rather than as an independent body, and whether access to information is being hindered by political rather than legal judgement,” the report said.

The Committee received evidence detailing multiple examples of government departments treating of FOI cases submitted through the “Clearing House” process in a “non-blind manner” for example “departments deciding FOI requests are sensitive because the applicant was a journalist and referring them to the Clearing House on this basis.”

MPs also recommended the government revisit its decision to exempt the new Advanced Research and Invention Agency from the scope of the FOI Act highlighting the exemption as “a slide away from transparency being viewed as helpful towards a view that it is a hindrance” which is a “concerning trend.”

Chair of PACAC William Wragg MP said: “Our Freedom of Information laws are a crucial part of our democracy, allowing citizens to hold Government to account. As FOI policy owner and coordinating department, the Cabinet Office should be championing transparency across government, but its substandard FOI handling and failure to provide basic information about the working of the coordinating body has had the opposite effect.

“An internal review alone won’t be sufficient to restore trust. The government must go further and allow for an independent audit of its practices such as the one offered by the Information Commissioner.  The Cabinet Office has dragged its feet for too long on this issue and must act now to remove suspicion around the Clearing House, improve compliance with FOI laws and regain public confidence.”

The reports key findings and recommendations were:

  • Cabinet Office should accept Information Commissioner’s offer of an audit to reassure the public it is complying with FOI law;
  • Cabinet Office should improve the tone from the top and drive stronger FOI culture through proactive leadership;
  • Government should revisit decision to exempt ARIA from the scope of FOI Act;
  • Government must address concerns about the use of WhatsApp and other private messaging systems to evade the FOI Act;
  • Government should consider how to better align departmental policy responsibility and financial responsibility for the Information Commissioner’s Office’s Freedom of Information work.