This tweet from Ryan Heath helpfully promotes this piece today in The Times which discloses that within the Cabinet Office, which is of course run by Michael Gove, that there is a unit that is called the “clearing house” that advises other government departments on how to respond to requests for Freedom of Information. The Law which enables FOI sets out that only very high risk cases should disclose the names and details of the people who are asking for the Information to the people who are putting together the responses. However it appears that all of the requests are disclosing the details which then enables the departments to treat each case as an attempt to avoid openness
A tribunal has criticised the Cabinet Office for a “profound lack of transparency” as it overturned the department’s attempt to withhold information about a secretive unit that centrally screens freedom of information (FoI) requests.
The tribunal judge, Chris Hughes, ruled that further information about the unit’s advice on handling certain complex requests should also be disclosed. Finding this in favour of OpenDemocracy. The Open Democracy organisation published this piece yesterday under the heading Judge slams Michael Gove’s office as openDemocracy wins transparency court case written by Peter Geoghegan and Jenna Corderoy which begins with the first few words
OpenDemocracy has won a significant legal victory against the UK government. The judgement forces transparency on a secretive unit accused of ‘blacklisting’ Freedom of Information requests from journalists, campaigners and others.
After a three-year battle, judge Chris Hughes found that the documents the Cabinet Office presented in court about the controversial Clearing House unit were ‘misleading’. He added that there is a “profound lack of transparency about the operation”, which might “extend to ministers”.
The piece goes on to state
Cabinet minister Michael Gove had previously called openDemocracy’s journalism “ridiculous and tendentious” but his department has now been ordered to release further details of how the Clearing House blocked FOI requests.
At the end of The Times piece there is the final sentence that
Labour called for Michael Gove, the Cabinet Office minister, to “set out how he will be ensuring that this government abides by the law”.
Let us hope that this will take place. Interestingly back on the 26th April the Labour MP for Hammersmith, Andrew Slaughter asked Michael Gove the following question and got the response shown below
AS: The Minister has a specific duty to ensure transparency in Government through the Freedom of Information Act. Is he concerned that Transparency International last year identified nine unremedied breaches of the ministerial code? Why is information withheld in Government FOI responses more often than not? And is he still running his FOI clearing house to delay and filter FOI responses?
MG: The freedom of information clearing house, sadly, is not mine. It was set up under a Labour Government, so it is a Blairite inheritance. What it exists to do is make sure that freedom of information responses are effectively co-ordinated and that we do everything we can in order to make sure that we comply with the terms of that legislation. But of course one point about the freedom of information legislation is that it needs to be a safe space for frank advice to be offered by officials to Ministers, and it is important for the good conduct of government that that safe space remains.
A few months earlier on the 30th November Chloe Smith responded to a series of written questions which came from David Davis, Catherine West and Dan Carden. The response included this section which indicates that perhaps the inheritance is not entirely limited to Tony Blair
This Government is fully committed to transparency, and ensuring all requests for Freedom of Information (FOI) are handled appropriately. All requests are considered in an applicant-blind manner, regardless of – for example – the occupation of the applicant. The Cabinet Office FOI process complies with relevant protections under the Data Protection Act 2018.
Under section 45 of the Freedom of Information Act 2000 the Cabinet Minister issues a Code of Practice, available on gov.uk, which provides guidance and advice to public authorities on the handling of Freedom of Information Requests. In addition, and in line with practice since 2005, the Cabinet Office provides advice to Departments, to ensure cases are handled consistently, and sensitive material handled appropriately. A Clearing House was established in 2004 and has operated in different forms since the FOI Act came into force in January 2005 as an advice centre to coordinate complex requests across Whitehall. There is now no stand alone Clearing House team, but coordination functions are carried out by a number of staff members who have a range of wider responsibilities. Policy responsibility for Freedom of Information transferred from the Ministry of Justice to the Cabinet Office in 2015.
And just to clarify who received (or called it over) and who has been running the Cabinet over that time, here is the list of Cabinet Ministers since 2010:
Francis Maude 2010-2015 (5 years)
Matthew Hancock 2015-2016 (14 months)
Ben Gummer 2016-2017 (11 months)
Damian Green 2017 (6 months)
David Lidington 2018-2019 (19 months)
Oliver Dowden 2019-2020 (7 months)
Michael Gove February 2020 till now
Clearly Michael may wish to go further back to 2004 when the Department was first created under the Government of Tony Blair, but given that since then we have had four more Prime Ministers and a massive number of Cabinet Ministers and that he has been in charge for the last 16 months he is now in charge!