MPs maintain scrutiny of Cabinet Office FoI hub

Written by Beckie Smith on 30 May 2022 in News

Parliamentary committee takes steps to try and ensure independence and rigour of upcoming review

Credit: Howard Lake/CC BY-SA 2.0

MPs have sought assurances that the government’s upcoming review of the Cabinet Office’s Freedom of Information clearing house will be independent and rigorous.

William Wragg, the chair of parliament’s Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee, asked Sue Langley – the Home Office non-executive director appointed last month to lead the review – what action she has taken to ensure her investigation is independent, and is perceived to be so.

Appointing Langley to lead the review last month, Cabinet Office minister Nicholas True said he had “every confidence" she would bring the "independent challenge" needed to address concerns about the secretive unit. Critics have said the clearing house, which provides guidance to departments on how to respond to FoI requests, causes delays and is opaque about the way it works.

In a letter suggesting the committee will keep up its own scrutiny of the clearing house, Wragg asked Langley to set out what civil service support she will have during her review, which departmental teams these officials will come from, and how she intends to ensure their independence.

The letter, dated 17 May, asked Langley to commit to providing the committee with regular updates on the progress of her review.

Wragg also asked Langley to share details of her previous experience leading internal reviews and of working with FoI legislation.

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“This matter has been of interest to my committee,” Wragg said, referring to PACAC’s inquiry into the Cabinet Office’s handling of FoI requests – which began after the government lost a legal battle over the clearing house. The judge on the case concluded there was a “profound lack of transparency” over the unit’s operations.

Concluding its inquiry last month, PACAC urged the Cabinet Office to “drive a cultural shift” across government away from “baseline compliance” with FoI legislation, and criticised the department’s failure to provide “basic information” about the clearing house.

The Cabinet Office told PACAC in August it would launch its own internal review into the unit, but it did not announce Langley’s appointment to lead it until eight months later.

The Home Office NED will explore the clearing house’s effectiveness and transparency and whether it is operating within the law.

In a separate letter to information commissioner John Edwards, Wragg sought answers on how the Cabinet Office’s terms of reference for the internal review compare with the data watchdog’s own proposed audit of the unit.

The Information Commissioner’s Office offered to review the clearing house last year, but was turned down by the Cabinet Office. PACAC called that decision “misjudged” in the May report.

“Given the ICO’s previous offer of an audit, and in light of your oversight role in relation to the FoI Act, I would appreciate your views on the following points: Do the proposed terms of reference provide the same or similar levels of public reassurance as the audit proposed by your office in May 2021? Do the proposed terms of reference provide the information necessary to allow you to understand whether the clearing house makes a necessary or helpful contribution to cross-government FOI processing?” Wragg asked Edwards.

He also asked whether the Cabinet Office had engaged with the watchdog when it was drafting the terms of reference.

Both letters were copied to Cabinet Office minister Lord True and asked for a response by 31 May.

A Cabinet Office spokesperson said: “This government remains fully committed to its transparency agenda, routinely disclosing information beyond its obligations under the FOI Act, and releasing more proactive publications than ever before.  Sue Langley is leading the internal review into the clearing house function and will assess the operation and effectiveness of its cross-government work. She will set out her recommendations in due course.”


About the author

Beckie Smith is deputy editor for PublicTechnlogy sister publication Civil Service World, where a version of this story first appeared. She tweets as @beckie__smith.

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