Cabinet Office condemned by MPs for FOI ‘clearing house’ secrecy

Boris Johnson at PMQs on Wednesday 30 March

Ministers have been accused of dragging their feet over opening up a controversial Government “clearing house” for dealing with Freedom of Information (FOI) requests to scrutiny.

The Commons Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee said it was “unacceptable” that a promised internal review by the Cabinet Office had yet to take place.

The committee said the Cabinet Office had failed to provide a convincing explanation as to why it turned down a request by the Information Commissioner’s Office to conduct an audit of its operations.

And it said its own investigations had found evidence of “poor FOI administration” in the Cabinet Office and which appeared “inconsistent with the spirit and principles” of the FOI Act.


The Cabinet Office has previously denied the clearing house – which co-ordinates Whitehall’s response to certain FOI requests – was used to blacklist some information seekers, including some journalists.

However, a tribunal ruling in April 2021 required the Government to release information about its operations, citing a “profound lack of transparency” about what it does.

Prior to that, the committee said the clearing house had “an opaque status”.

Read on...

Following the ruling, the Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) made a request to carry out an audit of the clearing house’s operations but was turned down – a decision the committee said was “misjudged”.

Instead the Cabinet Office announced it would conduct a short internal review but has yet to say who will conduct it or what their terms of reference will be.

The committee said:

This is an unacceptable delay. From the limited amount we know, the suggested direction of the review’s terms of reference lacks the same depth as the ICO’s proposed FOI audit approach.

To reassure the public and this committee, we recommend that the Cabinet Office should instead expose itself to rigorous external third-party scrutiny from the ICO and accept the ICO’s offer of an audit.

As the lead department in Whitehall on FOI, the committee said it was important the Cabinet Office was held to a higher standard to ensure “a vibrant FOI culture across government”.

Withholding information

Instead, however, there was evidence suggesting that, up to 2019 at least, the Cabinet Office granted fewer FOI requests and withheld more information than other departments.

Committee chairman William Wragg said:

Our Freedom of Information laws are a crucial part of our democracy, allowing citizens to hold government to account.

As FoI policy owner and coordinating department, the Cabinet Office should be championing transparency across government, but its substandard FoI handling and failure to provide basic information about the working of the coordinating body has had the opposite effect.

The Canary’s own journalists have repeatedly found the FOI system to not be fit for purpose. Indeed, in an investigation from last year, the Home Office told our journalist:

This FOI request shows that we do respond to queries from The Canary but that there have been occasions where press officers have not done so.

Civil servants must act with impartiality and must not act in a way that unjustifiably favours or discriminates against particular news media. We have reminded our media officers of that obligation.

Wragg continued:

An internal review alone won’t be sufficient to restore trust. The Government must go further and allow for an independent audit of its practices such as the one offered by the Information Commissioner.

The Cabinet Office has dragged its feet for too long on this issue and must act now to remove suspicion around the clearing house, improve compliance with FoI laws and regain public confidence.

We need your help to keep speaking the truth

Every story that you have come to us with; each injustice you have asked us to investigate; every campaign we have fought; each of your unheard voices we amplified; we do this for you. We are making a difference on your behalf.

Our fight is your fight. You’ve supported our collective struggle every time you gave us a like; and every time you shared our work across social media. Now we need you to support us with a monthly donation.

We have published nearly 2,000 articles and over 50 films in 2021. And we want to do this and more in 2022 but we don’t have enough money to go on at this pace. So, if you value our work and want us to continue then please join us and be part of The Canary family.

In return, you get:

* Advert free reading experience
* Quarterly group video call with the Editor-in-Chief
* Behind the scenes monthly e-newsletter
* 20% discount in our shop

Almost all of our spending goes to the people who make The Canary’s content. So your contribution directly supports our writers and enables us to continue to do what we do: speaking truth, powered by you. We have weathered many attempts to shut us down and silence our vital opposition to an increasingly fascist government and right-wing mainstream media.

With your help we can continue:

* Holding political and state power to account
* Advocating for the people the system marginalises
* Being a media outlet that upholds the highest standards
* Campaigning on the issues others won’t
* Putting your lives central to everything we do

We are a drop of truth in an ocean of deceit. But we can’t do this without your support. So please, can you help us continue the fight?

The Canary Support us