By Jenna Corderoy / openDemocracy
The Cabinet Office has announced it will radically overhaul an ‘Orwellian’ government unit that has been accused of blocking the release of information.
The news comes as a victory almost two years after openDemocracy first revealed that the ‘Clearing House’ was vetting Freedom of Information requests from journalists.
At the time, Cabinet Office minister Michael Gove dismissed concerns about the Clearing House as “ridiculous and tendentious”.
But following a review of the operation – prompted by openDemocracy’s reporting – the government has now said it will make the Clearing House system more transparent and efficient.
The review says the Clearing House should be disbanded and replaced with an “FOI centre of excellence within the Cabinet Office”.
Changes will also be made to force the government to better adhere to the applicant-blind principle, which says all requests should be treated the same, no matter who makes them.
In November 2020, openDemocracy revealed that lists circulated across Whitehall by the Cabinet Office contained the names of requesters and copies of their requests, prompting concerns over the applicant-blind principle as well as data protection.
The government will now introduce a pilot system where requesters’ names will not appear.
The move follows almost two years of concerns about the Clearing House, which first emerged after openDemocracy found that the unit had signed off on drafts of FOI responses and had tried to block the release of files about the contaminated blood scandal.
Last year, openDemocracy won a landmark legal victory over the government – forcing it to release information about its operation. A judge ruled there was a “profound lack of transparency” about the Clearing House, which “may extend to ministers”.
The legal victory sparked a parliamentary inquiry, where the Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee heavily criticised the Cabinet Office over the handling of FOI requests.
Last year, the government committed to undertake a review of the Clearing House, although it was plagued with delays.
The review, led by Sue Langley, found there was a “lack of clarity around the use of requester names as identifiers within the Round Robin system”.
In response, the Cabinet Office minister Lord True said the government had “listened to the concerns raised by FOI practitioners about the inclusion of requester names on the Round Robin lists and will pilot, with immediate effect, a new system whereby these do not appear.”
In the review, Langley found that 89% of the review’s participants were concerned that requester’s names were being noted, which could undermine data protection principles.
Langley also found how “there is significant concern across government about the delays that can be caused by third parties” and “which need to be addressed urgently”.
She also recommended that the Clearing House should only provide “guidance and advice for uncommon, complex and national security related FOI cases only”.
Last week, openDemocracy revealed that the departments led by Tory leadership hopefuls Rishi Sunak and Liz Truss were the least transparent in the entire government in 2021.
While Sunak was chancellor, the Treasury refused to comply with more FOI requests than any other department in Whitehall. The Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office, where Truss took over as secretary of state in September, was the slowest of the government’s 41 departments and agencies at releasing information.