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Cabinet Office blocked probe into government secrecy

MPs told that the department is ‘utterly failing’ transparency laws at parliamentary inquiry

Adam Bychawski
27 October 2021, 11.53am
An inquiry heard how the Cabinet Office is ’free to self-regulate’ despite ‘major concerns’
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Artur Widak/NurPhoto/PA Images

The Cabinet Office blocked an official probe into government secrecy, despite “major public concerns”.

The Information Commissioner’s Office yesterday revealed that it had offered to audit the way the department handles Freedom of Information (FOI) requests. But government officials refused and announced their own internal review instead.

The regulator said it had offered to step in because of a landmark legal victory by openDemocracy earlier this year about the Cabinet Office’s controversial Clearing House unit, which vets FOI requests.

In court in June, the judge criticised the department’s “profound lack of transparency” that might “extend to ministers”.

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Elizabeth Denham, the information commissioner, said her offer to audit the department was declined. She added: “As a result, the Cabinet Office is free to self-regulate despite major public concerns about its compliance with [the Freedom of Information Act].”

Denham said that the regulator needs new powers to investigate concerns without having to first seek permission, saying its current position is “unsatisfactory” and “outdated”.

The disclosures came during a parliamentary inquiry into FOI yesterday, in which MPs were told that Freedom of Information rights had been “severely undermined” by government departments.

The inquiry was launched by the Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee, as a direct result of openDemocracy’s investigations into government secrecy.

openDemocracy journalist Jenna Corderoy was among the experts at the inquiry, telling MPs that the Cabinet Office in particular was “simply not respecting the law”.

“FOI is important to the public,” she said. “It allows people to hold those in power to account. Everyone has the right to information. But that right is being undermined.”

”When we raised legitimate concerns, the Cabinet Office tried to discredit us.”

‘Huge, huge reform’ needed

Corderoy told MPs that Freedom of Information legislation needs “a huge, huge reform particularly in central government departments”. She added that more information was needed about how the Clearing House is run, because the Cabinet Office is “utterly failing on Freedom of Information”.

Giving evidence to the inquiry, journalists said the Clearing House had prevented the release of documents despite them being cleared for publication by other government departments.

The Cabinet Office in particular is ‘simply not respecting the law’

Last year, openDemocracy revealed how it intervened to prevent the release of sensitive files about the contaminated blood scandal that claimed the lives of thousands across Britain.

Corderoy told MPs she was “sickened” that campaigner Jason Evans – whose father died after being infected by HIV – had his request to the Treasury delayed by the Clearing House.

“The back and forth took five months, that goes well beyond the statutory deadline and I find that completely unacceptable. Delays are incredibly bad and there’s no repercussions for the Cabinet Office,” she said.

Other experts at the inquiry included Times reporter George Greenwood and the BBC’s former FOI specialist, Martin Rosenbaum. All rejected the Cabinet Office’s claim that the Clearing House is necessary to ensure “consistency” in answers to freedom of information requests.

“I think what the Clearing House is really worried about much more of the time is stopping some government departments from releasing information of the kind which other government departments – and particularly the Cabinet Office – doesn't want released,” said Rosenbaum.

Everyone has the right to information. But that right is being undermined

The Cabinet Office claims that the unit is required to ensure that sensitive information is handled appropriately.

But MPs heard that some requests were being flagged as “sensitive” to the Clearing House simply because they involved high-profile policy initiatives.

“They’re treating many, many requests as so sensitive that they have to get involved rather than just ones which genuinely might be very sensitive,” said Rosenbaum.

On Monday, openDemocracy revealed that 2020 was the worst on record for government secrecy with just 41% of FOI requests sent to government departments and agencies granted in full.

The Cabinet Office was one of the worst offenders and has received the highest number of complaints among government departments, according to the ICO.

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