Cabinet Office denies FOI blacklist

Written by Jim Dunton on 15 February 2021 in News
News

Campaigners call for parliamentary investigation into handling of requests

Credit: Sgconlaw/CC BY-SA 3.0

The Cabinet Office has denied accusations that its “clearing house” for Freedom of Information Act requests blocks queries from journalists and tells departments how they should respond to demands for information made under transparency legislation.

Campaigners have called for a parliamentary investigation into the government’s handling of FOI requests in light of concerns about journalists being blacklisted, requests not being dealt with on an “applicant blind” basis, and departments' use of “administrative silence”.

The openDemocracy group’s call was made in a letter to the chairs of parliament’s Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Select Committee and the Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Select Committee. It was backed by more than a dozen national-newspaper editors and former editors. Among those copied in were Cabinet Office minister Michael Gove and UK Information Commissioner Elizabeth Denham.

Other demands in the letter included better funding for regulator the Information Commissioner’s Office and a government rethink on expanding the scope of FOI laws to cover public contracts with private firms.


Related content


In a detailed response to openDemocracy, the Cabinet Office said it was committed to openness and transparency and that the “clearing house” function had existed in different forms since 2004, one year before the Freedom of Information Act 2000 came into effect.

It said responsibility for FOI policy had moved between the Department of Constitutional Affairs and the Ministry of Justice before reaching the Cabinet Office, where it now sits as part of the FOI and Transparency team and wider Cabinet Secretary Group. 

The Cabinet Office said there was no stand-alone clearing house team and that coordination functions were carried out by a “small number” of staff members, all of whom had a range of other responsibilities.

“The clearing house function helps ensure there is a consistent approach across government to requests for information which impact or go to a number of different government departments – so-called round robins – or where requests are made for particularly sensitive information, including relating to national security or personal data,” it said.

“This is especially important for complex FOI requests where we are obliged to balance the need to make information available with our legal duties under the FOI Act to protect sensitive information.

“A coordination function ensures there is a consistent approach so all those submitting FOIs are treated in a similar and fair manner by departments.”

'Departments prepare for media interest'
The Cabinet Office said the clearing house did not share the personal details of journalists, blacklist journalists or seek to obstruct others looking for information.

“The clearing house function provides advice,” the department said. “It does not direct departments on what they should do with individual FOI cases, nor does it direct departments to block FOI requests.”

The department added: “The consideration of FOI requests is, and remains, applicant-blind. All FOI requests are treated exactly the same, regardless of who the request is from and their occupation.

“It would be unlawful for the Cabinet Office, or other departments, to blacklist enquiries from journalists and their requests are not treated differently to anyone else who sends FOI requests. It is appropriate for departments to prepare for possible media interest in information released under FOI, but this is separate from a decision on whether or not to release information.”

The Cabinet Office acknowledged the coronavirus pandemic had “stretched” government resources. But it said departments had responded to “almost 90%” of the 8,000-plus FOI requests received between July and September within the 20-day limit or a permitted extension.

The department said it anticipated a “marked improvement” in its FOI performance in the next quarter, despite an increase in the number of requests, because it had been streamlining processes for FOI handling.

 

Tags

Share this page

Tags

Categories

CONTRIBUTIONS FROM READERS

Please login to post a comment or register for a free account.

Related Articles

Related Sponsored Articles

Avoid Infrastructure Paralysis: Six benefits of moving legacy Oracle workloads to the cloud
6 April 2021

There are many reasons to keep your Oracle workloads running on local servers. But there are even more reasons to move them to the cloud as part of a wider digital transition strategy. Six Degrees...

Human Centric Process Management: The common base for digital transformation, cost savings, compliance and agility
11 March 2021

Engage Process explains how to ensure that process remains at the heart of your management programs - and how to keep undue pressure from those processes 

10 Tips To Stay Productive When Working From Home in 2021
9 March 2021

In order to stay productive despite increased feelings of isolation - and other challenges - Azeus Convene suggest these top 10 tips to help you make the most out of working from home...

Tackling vaccination misinformation with local government communications
9 March 2021

As misinformation about the coronavirus vaccine spreads, Granicus outlines key considerations for local government when delivering a successful vaccine communications campaign