The UK Cabinet Office has been condemned by the Information Rights Tribunal for a “profound lack of transparency” in a Tribunal ruling over FoI ‘blacklists’.
The ruling comes some three years after Open Democracy asked for a sample of Clearing House lists, referred to internally at the Cabinet Office as the FoI Round Robin list.
Before the tribunal ruling was issued, the Cabinet Office backtracked and published information about the Clearing House.
Journalists at the BBC, Guardian and Times are among those whose FoI requests are flagged by the Cabinet Office to other departments.
Open Democracy journalist Jenna Corderoy said in evidence to the tribunal: “The FOI Round Robin List which I refer to is a collation of FOI requests submitted by individuals such as journalists and NGOs. To my knowledge, the list indicates what the FOI requests are about, and which government department has received them.
“I also believe that the FOI Round Robin List indicates which exemptions the departments should reply upon.”
It is feared that the list operates as a blacklist slowing down or stopping sensitive requests.
The Cabinet Office view on the lists, as summarised by the tribunal, is: “It is meant as an immediate, practical tool for central government departments, offering them advice on often sensitive or technical FOI issues as that advice arises (and changes) over the timeframe of individual cases.”
In its ruling, the tribunal said: “Co-ordination of government activity is a key part of the work of the Cabinet Office as is making the way government works more transparent. It is clear that over the years there has been a lacuna in public information about how these two important roles are brought together to ensure that government transparency is
effective across the whole of government.
“There has been no publicly available information, such information as was on gov.uk was archived eight years ago, the Wikipedia entry to which the tribunal’s attention was drawn was also out of date.
“The recent public disclosure of information about Clearing House made on 18 March 2021… is welcome however it does not impact on the public interest issue that this tribunal has to resolve.
“The profound lack of transparency about the operation of the Cabinet Office, might appear, from the material before this tribunal, to extend to Ministers.”
Erin Alcock from the Human Rights Department at Leigh Day told Open Democracy: “This decision is important because it demonstrates the Tribunal understood and gave weight to the value of public discourse over the activities of the Clearing House. Our client has been raising serious and legitimate concerns for some time now that the Clearing House may be presenting barriers to transparency, and may not accord with the spirit of the Freedom of Information Act.”
Conservative MP David Davis said that the court ruling “demonstrates what we have known all along. The Cabinet Office has failed to meet its obligation in either the letter or the principle of the Freedom of Information Act and has withheld important information about government activity from the public domain. This has got to change immediately.”
Michelle Stanistreet, NUJ general secretary, said: “This is an important win in an FOI battle to get the Cabinet Office to come clean about the tracking of FOI requests made by journalists and NGOs. The Cabinet Office are responsible for making the government more transparent, ensuring compliance with the Freedom of Information Act and supporting the Prime Minister. It’s therefore particularly outrageous that they’ve chosen to delay, obstruct and stymie the release of relevant information in this case.”
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