Michael Gove’s office ordered by court to release files on secretive FOI unit

Questions remain over possible blacklisting of journalists by Cabinet Office

Jon Stone
Policy Correspondent
Tuesday 08 June 2021 17:39
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<p>Michael Gove arrives at the cabinet office</p>

Michael Gove arrives at the cabinet office

Michael Gove's office has been slammed by a judge for a "profound lack of transparency" and ordered to release internal files shedding light on a secretive unit that handles freedom of information requests.

On Tuesday is was announced that the Cabinet Office had lost a legal bid to block the release of documents relating to its "freedom of information clearing house", located deep in the bowels of Whitehall.

An investigation by the OpenDemocracy website suggested that the secretive unit was being used to potentially blacklist journalists and campaigners seeking information under transparency laws – which would be unlawful.

And the clearing house appears to be helping government departments resist requests by the public for information under transparency laws.

The government claims the unit only exists to ensure a "consistent approach across government" for requests of "particularly sensitive information".

But at the same time the Cabinet Office, which is run by Michael Gove, has also refused to release documents elaborating to the way the unit is run and what it does.

Called to a special information tribunal to account for their actions, the government offered an out-of-date Wikipedia entry as evidence that everything was above board and information on the unit publicly available – an argument rejected by the judge.

The tribunal found that documents presented by the Cabinet Office in court were "misleading" about the Clearing House and that was a “profound lack of transparency about the operation” that “might appear...to extend to ministers".

The Cabinet Office was ordered to release more information about how the unit operates. Mr Gove had previously dismissed the concerns as “ridiculous and tendentious”.

Reacting to the decision, Conservative MP and longtime civil liberties campaigner David Davis said the tribunal ruling “demonstrates what we have known all along".

He added: "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.”

A spokesperson for the Information Commissioner's Office said it welcomed the tribunal's decision, while Labour's shadow Cabinet Office minister Angela Rayner said: “Freedom of Information is absolutely vital in ensuring transparency, accountability and open government in our democracy, underpinned and set out by law.

“The Cabinet Office lists one of its own key responsibilities as “making the way government works more transparent”, yet as the court’s damning judgement makes clear, Conservative Ministers are determined to undermine accountability and transparency at every turn.

“Michael Gove, as Minister for the Cabinet Office, must personally intervene and set out how he will be ensuring that this government abides by the law and upholds the right of citizens, journalists and campaigners to access information under Freedom of Information.”

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.

“In order to be as transparent as possible we have released the vast majority of information that was requested in this case and have already published a considerable amount of information on Clearing House, including a gov.uk page explaining its purpose and remit.”

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