NEWS – “without comment”

Freedom of information

Judge backs openDemocracy and decries ‘toxic culture of secrecy and evasion’ of Clearing House The judge said the tribunal had been misled by the department, led by Michael Gove.

The Guardian – Haroon Siddique

Tue 8 Jun 2021

The government has lost a legal battle to prevent the release of documents about an “Orwellian” unit that is accused of obstructing the release of material requested by the public under the Freedom of Information Act.

The Clearing House, a little-known unit that sits at the heart of government, circulates details of certain FoI requests by journalists, campaigners and others around Whitehall and also advises on how to respond to them.

The openDemocracy website first requested in 2018 that the Cabinet Office release information about the Clearing House but it declined, claiming exemptions and that it would not be in the public interest. When the information commissioner backed openDemocracy, the government appealed.

In a written judgment, made public on Tuesday, Judge Hughes backed the information commissioner, concluding that there was a “profound lack of transparency about the operation” that “might appear … to extend to ministers”.

Hughes also said there was a “lacuna in public information” about how the Cabinet Office ensured transparency and that the tribunal had been misled by the department, led by Michael Gove.

Julian Richards, the openDemocracy editor-in-chief, said: “This tribunal ruling completely vindicates openDemocracy’s journalism, which has shown how freedom of information is being undermined at the very heart of government. There is a toxic culture of secrecy and evasion that has to stop.

“We should not have had to go all the way to a tribunal to force the Cabinet Office to comply with basic transparency requirements.”

Hughes said the Cabinet Office had offered an out-of-date Wikipedia entry as evidence that information about the Clearing House was available to the public. Until the public disclosure of information on 18 March 2021, the only information on had been archived eight years ago, he noted.

Last year, openDemocracy revealed how the Clearing House had advised that the release of documents related to the contaminated NHS blood scandal needed to be “managed”, saying former ministers would be “very sore” about the disclosure of information about their time in office.

Journalists from the Guardian, the BBC, the Times, the Mirror, the Sun and the Daily Telegraph are among those who have appeared on the Clearing House list, according to Whitehall sources.

In February, editors of six UK national newspapers, including the Guardian and the Telegraph, signed an open letter requesting an urgent investigation into the FoI Act amid fears that the public are being stonewalled.

The shadow Cabinet Office minister Angela Rayner, described the judgement as “damning” and said it was part of a wider attempt by ministers “to undermine accountability and transparency”. The Conservative MP David Davis said the government had “withheld important information about government activity from the public domain”.

A Cabinet Office spokesperson said: “A clearing house function has existed since 2004 to help ensure there is a consistent approach across government to requests for information which go to a number of different departments or where requests are made for particularly sensitive information.

“We remain committed to transparency and always balance the need to make information available with our legal duty to protect sensitive information.”

They claimed “the vast majority of information” requested in the case had been released.


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