Government Rejects MPs’ Transparency Pleas Over Secretive Clearing House
By Jenna Corderoy: The government has put “two fingers up to the process” by redacting a report into its own secrecy problems over the so-called ‘clearing house‘, campaigners say.
Publishing the full findings of the internal probe is one of a string of official requests for transparency that ministers have rejected, it was revealed this week. The recommendations came from the Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee (PACAC) and the information commissioner John Edwards.
PACAC made most of the requests in its own excoriating report three months ago. Its chair William Wragg MP said the refusals were “disappointing” and “set a poor example for the rest of Whitehall”.
Campaigners described the rejections as “dispiriting” and “a missed opportunity”, while Tommy Sheppard MP has called for a review of Freedom of Information (FOI) law.
PACAC’s report in April followed a string of revelations by openDemocracy about the Cabinet Office’s “Orwellian” Clearing House, which has been accused of blocking FOI requests and blacklisting journalists.
The committee urged the government to reverse its worrying “slide away from transparency” and made a number of recommendations. Ministers have now rejected them all.
The government said it would not publish data on the number of cases that are referred to the Clearing House, claiming it would be a “disproportionate use of resources”.
Sheppard, who has been battling the Cabinet Office for access to polling information, said the Cabinet Office was “behaving like a rogue department that really has no regard for transparency, no desire for open government, no concern about being in any way accountable to the public”.
He added: “It all makes for extremely bad government and it needs to change.”
Sheppard called for “a fundamental shake-up of both in the administration of the Cabinet Office, but also I think time for a review of the Freedom of Information framework so that we limit the room for people in the Cabinet Office to just put two fingers up to the process”.
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‘Fully committed to transparency’
MPs had already called for an independent audit of the Cabinet Office’s FOI practices to be carried out by the information rights watchdog, the Information Commissioner’s Office.
The Cabinet Office refused and attracted the ire of the then information commissioner Elizabeth Denham by opting instead for an ‘internal review’ of the Clearing House. Denham’s successor John Edwards was less forthright, but urged the department to at least publish its full findings.
After a lengthy delay, the government has finally begun the review – but has rejected Edwards’ request, saying it will only publish a summary at the end.
The Cabinet Office also said this week it would stick to its decision not to make its new scientific research body, the Advanced Research and Invention Agency, subject to Freedom of Information law.
Incredibly, it maintained in its response to PACAC that it was “fully committed to transparency”.
Campaign for Freedom of Information’s Katherine Gundersen said: “The Cabinet Office digging its heels in will do little to reassure FOI requesters or PACAC about its commitment to FOI. As the committee stressed, tone from the top matters. This response is a missed opportunity to engage with the committee’s modest recommendations and demonstrate it is serious about improving transparency.”
Jon Baines, FOI specialist at law firm Mishcon de Reya, who wrote about the legality of the Clearing House, said: “It’s hard to imagine a more dispiriting response from the government to the PACAC’s well founded concerns and recommendations. We are simply told ‘there is nothing to be concerned about, and nothing to be improved’, when the evidence unearthed and presented by the committee pointed so clearly the other way.”
He continued: “FOI in central government is in a parlous state, with poor compliance against statutory response times, low levels of disclosure and multiple instances of excessive sharing of requesters’ details across departments.
“One expected at least an acceptance that improvements could be made, but that expectation has been shown to have been naïve.”
The government also doubled down on the controversial practice of using special advisers to “clear” responses to requests for information.
It is “completely legitimate and in line with the FOI Act for special advisers to give assistance and advice on any aspect of department business, including on requests for information made under the act, and to convey a minister’s views to officials,” reads the response to PACAC, whose author is not identified.
In late 2021, openDemocracy revealed FOI officials had been directly instructed to gain approval from special advisers before they are allowed to release information. One government department’s guidance says: “If you’re going to disclose information that has never been in the public domain, you’ll need to contact DfE’s special advisers (SpAds) to tell them your plans and they’ll need to approve (‘clear’) the response.”
In response to openDemocracy’s revelations, Andy Slaughter MP said: “Rather than giving priority to effecting the law in the clearest and quickest way, the intention is to put as many hurdles and delays in as possible. What is the role of SpAds here except to sanitise or obstruct the publication of information that has already passed all proper checks?”
The government’s response also says it is resuming its work to revise guidance on the use of private emails and communication channels, which was put on hold in 2021 when permission for a judicial review was granted over the use of WhatsApp in government.