Freedom of Information: News

Clearing House: Government admits it’s done nothing about ‘Orwellian’ unit

Cabinet Office pledged to review a unit that blocked Freedom of Information requests. Five months on, it hasn’t even appointed an investigator

Jenna Corderoy
Jenna Corderoy
20 January 2022, 6.43pm
The Cabinet Office was a repeat offender in critical rulings over the government’s handling of FOI requests
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Artur Widak/NurPhoto/PA Images

The UK government has admitted it still hasn’t appointed anyone to review its controversial ‘Clearing House’ – nine months after a judge slammed the shadowy information unit for a “profound lack of transparency”.

Speaking to MPs on Thursday, a Cabinet Office official said it would find someone to lead a review into the secretive operation “as soon as we possibly can”, but the department still could not provide a timeframe.

The Clearing House, part of the Cabinet Office, has been accused of blocking Freedom of Information (FOI) requests and blacklisting journalists. The general secretary of the National Union of Journalists has called it “Orwellian”.

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Investigations by openDemocracy have revealed it helped to suppress sensitive information on issues from Grenfell Tower to the contaminated blood scandal.

Last year, the Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee (PACAC) launched an inquiry after a legal victory by openDemocracy against the Cabinet Office. openDemocracy had requested details about the Clearing House itself, which the Cabinet Office refused to provide, sparking a lengthy battle through an information tribunal.

A few months later, Chloe Smith, then a Cabinet Office minister, wrote to PACAC promising an internal assessment into the Clearing House. Her letter claimed the government would “review the operation of the Clearing House, note the practices under successive administrations, and provide any recommendations for improvement and further guidance.”

But Alex Chisholm, the permanent secretary at the Cabinet Office, today admitted that no one had been put in charge of the assessment yet – five months after Smith’s pledge.

“It’s important that the person who conducts that review is somebody who is able to command public trust and confidence so we’ve been taking care about that,” he said. “We haven’t yet made that appointment but we will be doing so.”

When pressed by MP Ronnie Cowan whether this would take weeks or months, Chisholm replied: “We will be doing so as soon as we possibly can.”

During today’s PACAC inquiry, Cowan also asked why the Cabinet Office had refused an offer by the UK’s information watchdog, the Information Commissioner’s Office, to audit the Clearing House independently. The committee heard in November that the refusal had “increased suspicion” over the controversial FOI unit. Chisholm told Cowan: “I don’t have the answer to that question, but I’m sure there were good reasons.”

Chisholm added that the Cabinet Office was “fully committed to the FOI Act”, and said it publishes “a huge amount of additional information off our own back, going far beyond the requirements of the FOI Act”. He claimed there were “a number of misconceptions out there about the work of the Clearing House”.

Over the past year, openDemocracy has revealed the controversial ways in which the unit coordinates FOI responses from across government, and has tried to prevent information from being released.

In one case, the Clearing House actively discouraged the release of information about the infected blood scandal, which has been the subject of a long-running inquiry.

A request was sent to the Treasury asking for historic documents about litigation taken by haemophiliacs infected with HIV in the early 1990s. Requests are supposed to be replied to within 20 working days, but it was passed between departments for months, with the Clearing House advising the Treasury to hold off publication.

Politico also recently revealed how the Clearing House worked to block the release of documents to journalists, against the advice of the Department for International Trade’s own information officers.

And a Times journalist found that one of his FOI requests to the Environment Agency was flagged to the Clearing House as “sensitive because the customer is a journalist”. Government departments that received requests from The Times for details about databases were advised by the Clearing House to reject them as the requests “appears to have no discernible purpose”.

Documents unearthed by openDemocracy show Whitehall departments have previously been told to seek advice from the Clearing House for FOI requests from “news media, MPs, organised campaigns and groups”.

openDemocracy also revealed FOI officials had been directly instructed to gain approval from special advisers before they are allowed to release information.

On Thursday, Cowan asked Steve Barclay, Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, if special advisers review FOI requests before they come to him, to which Barclay responded: “I think within the department there will be a number of people that will look at those FOI requests in terms of consistency.”

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