Government accused of ‘substandard’ handling of freedom of information system

MPs have accused the government of “substandard” handling of the freedom of information system and called for an independent audit of in order to restore public trust.

In a new report, members of the the Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee said its own investigations had found evidence of “poor FoI administration” in the Cabinet Office.

The MPs said this appeared “inconsistent with the spirit and principles” of the FoI Act – introduced in 2000 to allow members of the public to request information held by public bodies.

They said ministers had dragged their feet over opening up a controversial “Clearing House” — a body which coordinates responses to certain requests across government — to scrutiny.

The Cabinet Office has previously denied the clearing house was used to blacklist some information seekers, including some journalists.

However, a tribunal ruling in April 2021 required the government to release information about its operations, citing a “profound lack of transparency” about what it does.

The Cabinet Office has invited Sue Langley — a non-executive director at the Home Office — to lead an internal “review” of the Clearing House processes and to report back to ministers ahead of the July recess.

Instead, the committee has warned that in order to “reassure” the public, the government must “expose itself to rigorous external third party scrutiny” and allow the Information Commissioner’s Office [ICO] to conduct and audit.

The chair of the committee and Conservative MP William Wragg said: “Our freedom of information laws are a crucial part of our democracy, allowing citizens to hold government to account.

“As FOI policy owner and coordinating department, the Cabinet Office should be championing transparency across government, but its substandard FOI handling and failure to provide basic information about the working of the coordinated body has had the opposite effect.”

He added: “An internal review alone won’t be sufficient to restore trust. The government must go further and allow for an independent audit of its practices such as the one offered by the Information commissioner.

“The Cabinet Office has dragged its feet for too long on this issue and must act now to remove suspicion around the Clearing House, improve compliance with FOI laws and regain public confidence”.

A spokesperson for the Cabinet Office 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.

“We have appointed Sue Langley to lead the internal review into the Clearing House function and assess the operation and effectiveness of its cross-government work. We are reviewing PACAC’s report and will consider its recommendations in our internal review.”

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