The Cabinet Office has announced the outcome of its Review of the Government's Freedom of Information (FOI) "Clearing House" process.
As we observed earlier this year, the Clearing House - under which the Cabinet Office has overseen and advised on certain FOI requests received by other Government departments - has been the subject of frequent criticism. Much of that criticism centred on the fact that FOI requests should, as a general principle, be approached by public authorities on an "applicant-blind" basis: who the requester is and what their motives are or might be should not normally be taken into account when determining whether information should be disclosed. The Clearing House, however, involved the sharing of the names of requesters, as well as the wording of their requests. This was almost certainly in contravention of data protection law, and also led to suggestions that some requesters - journalists, perhaps - were being "blacklisted".
The outcome of the Review is a series of recommendations, which the Cabinet Office has broadly accepted, to the effect that:
- The Clearing House should be reconfigured as an "FOI centre of excellence within the Cabinet Office";
- There should be greater transparency in general about the FOI process within Government, and, more specifically, requesters should be informed when they make a request as to how it will be dealt with; and
- The general approach of sharing of names of requesters should cease.
It was not within the Review's terms of reference to consider the more general concerns about Government departments' compliance with, for example, FOI timescales and the quality of responses, but it is possible the new "centre of excellence", if it operates effectively, might contribute to improvements more generally.
OpenDemocracy, and in particular journalists Jenna Corderoy, Lucas Amin and their editor Peter Geoghegan, as well as the Campaign for Freedom of Information, conducted a lot of the earlier research in the Clearing House, and should be acknowledged as having contributed to bringing about the Review.