Controversial Whitehall FOI ‘clearing house’ set for revamp

Cabinet Office accepts recommendations of review calling for greater transparency and more protections for those requesting information

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The Cabinet Office Freedom of Information clearing house is set to be turned into a centre-of-excellence function after an internal review recommended an overhaul.

A probe was commissioned by the Cabinet Office earlier this year after concerns were raised about the way the team coordinates FoI requests and the lack of transparency about its activity. The review, published in full yesterday, called for the unit to refocus on providing advice across government – rather than play the authoritative role of approving responses that its name suggests.

The Cabinet Office has accepted this recommendation, as well as a proposal that requesters’ names are no longer shared around departments. Almost nine in 10 of the participants in the review, from 20 different government departments, raised concerns that the sharing of names could undermine data regulations.

The department finally announced details of the in-house review of the unit in April, eight months after saying it would evaluate the secretive clearing house, and just hours before the Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee released its own report about the unit.

MPs on the committee called for the Cabinet Office to take a stronger leadership role in coordinating the handling of Freedom of Information requests and “drive a cultural shift” across government – away from simply complying with the FoI Act, and towards more active supporting for the principles of the legislation.

Sue Langley, who is lead non-executive director at the Home Office and was charged with reviewing the clearing house, said she had found that government officials had a “wholehearted interest” in upholding the spirit of the FoI Act and that there was a “genuine willingness from the centre to improve its clearing house system”.

As well as revamping the role of the unit and offering FoI requesters more anonymity, her review also called for the clearing house to release more information, regularly, about what its aims are.

The report, which was published in full after the Cabinet Office U-turned on its plan to only publish a summary, also called for ‘round robins’ – where requests sent to multiple departments are coordinated to ensure responses are consistent – to only be used if it is essential to do so.

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Her review did not find any evidence of deliberate unlawful obstruction of the FoI Act but there was significant concern across government about delays that can be caused when information is needed from third parties, which Langley said should be addressed.

The Cabinet Office has agreed to all of Langley’s recommendations, which came after 95% of participants in the review said the clearing house function could be improved.

Langley said the clearing house has evolved over time, but that it should recognise that each public body is responsible for its own FoI obligations and, consequently, refocus on its core purpose: providing guidance on complex cases.

The Cabinet Office unit should also provide regular up-to-date information on legislative and central government operational matters, and be staffed appropriately, she said.

Langley also called for the team to stay within the Cabinet Office to aid consistency and efficiency, and for it address issues with delays caused by third parties by providing strong guidance on the importance of timely and accurate responses.

She said: “There is significant concern across government about the delays that can be caused by third parties, which need to be addressed urgently.”

Cabinet Office minister Nicholas True said the government agrees that the clearing house should be redesigned to operate more clearly as an advisory function, adding that its current name is “confusing, suggesting a level of direction and control over other departments’ FoI requests which, in reality, does not exist”. 

“We will work to reconfigure the function to provide advice efficiently to departments to enable them to meet their statutory obligations in a timely manner and to a high quality,” he said. “This will include working with third parties to see where processes can be streamlined and made more effective. We welcome Sue Langley’s recommendation that the Cabinet Office should continue to play a central role in ensuring the FoI Act operates as intended by parliament.”

Clearing its name
While the Cabinet Office has claimed that FoI requests are dealt with according to the applicant-blind principle, this is not always the case for round-robin requests – where the same enquiry is made to more than one department – where names are often shared around departments.

Some 89% of people who participated in the review raised concerns that the sharing of requesters’ names could undermine data protection principles. Langley said the approach of circulating an FOI requester’s name across all departments is not “necessary” and “intrusive”.

Lord True said the Cabinet Office will pilot a new system where requesters’ names are not shown to officials responding to FoIs.

The Cabinet Office has also agreed that round robin list will in the future be used only for “uncommon, complex and national security related FOI cases”, as recommended by Langley.

The clearing house has been criticised for its secrecy, being described by critics as “Orwellian”.

Langley said the new centre of excellence function should lead by example and strengthen public understanding of what it does, by regularly publishing clear and detailed information on GOV.UK.

In response, Lord True said greater transparency will be built into the redesign of the clearing house.

Langley said the centre of excellence should also show leadership “by example” by building an online FoI toolkit – or how-to guide – and bringing together best practice in single central library. She said the centre could also conduct regular training and networking sessions.

Lord True said the government welcomes the recommendation for the Cabinet Office to extend its role in setting standards and promoting the effective handling of FoI across all government departments. He added that the department will look to build on its training and guidance, and that the latter would focus on cross-cutting themes that are specific to central government, to avoid duplication of the Information Commissioner’s Office’s guidance.

Sam Trendall

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