Cabinet Office Rejects FOI Recommendations

The Cabinet Office has rejected the recommendations of the Commons Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee, which called in its report of April 2022 for greater transparency over the Cabinet Office’s handling of Freedom of Information requests.

In the News Media Association’s submission to the PACAC Inquiry the NMA warned that the Cabinet Office and its internal unit, the Clearing House, could impede access to public interest information. The Clearing House’s criteria in respect of requests involving sensitive information appeared to flag anything which was likely to attract publicity and anything from a media body. This practice was counter to the ‘applicant blind’ FOI process and to freedom of speech in the UK.

In its response the Government says it agreed that “it is important to acknowledge the challenge of some of the perceptions of the Clearing House’s role and remit”, but contended that the Clearing House had merely “a small-scale advisory function”.

The Government said that all FOI requests were treated exactly the same: “Departments may take the occupation or interests of the requester into account when considering if press teams should be prepared to respond to any queries arising from a FOI response, but this is separate from the consideration of the request under FOI and is not contrary to the applicant-blind principle. 

“As set out in the ICO guidance, this principle means that requests for information should generally be considered without reference to the identity of the requester or the motives behind the request.  It does not mean that the public authority should not make sensible preparations for possible media interest in information it is proposing to release”.

The response does not address any of the issues raised in the report in detail, instead saying it will wait for the recommendations from its own internal review, led by Sue Langley OBE. The Committee has already described this as being insufficient to restore public trust.

The response also noted that the Government had “no plans” to revisit the decision to exempt the Advanced Research and Invention Agency (ARIA) from the FOI Act, a move which the Committee viewed as concerning and on which the NMA lobbied during the passage of the ARIA Bill last Autumn. As ARIA will spend some £800 million of public money in its first four years there is no justification for its exemption from FOI requirements.  

William Wragg MP, chair of PACAC said: “Our inquiry heard significant concerns that the Cabinet Office was not transparent with its handling of FOI requests. That is why we asked for more data to be published and called for an independent audit of its practices. It is disappointing that today’s government response rejects our recommendations.

“We still have concerns that the Cabinet Office’s refusal to open up to an audit by the regulator sets a poor example for the rest of Whitehall and will mean suspicions of FOI mismanagement will persist. The internal review set up by the Government risks providing little comfort to many we heard from who have already lost trust in the system.”