Michael Gove’s Cabinet Office faces legal action over ‘information blacklist team’
Michael Gove’s Cabinet Office runs a "Clearing House" for government Freedom of Information requests (Image: REUTERS)
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Michael Gove's Cabinet Office is facing legal action over claims of an 'Orwellian' system of obstructing requests for public information.
The department runs a "Clearing House" unit, which monitors Freedom of Information (FOI) requests made to departments across all Government departments – and which has been accused of 'black listing' journalists.
It comes as a new report, published today found government departments were rejecting requests for information on an unprecedented scale.
In the last five years, the Cabinet Office – as well as the Treasury, Foreign Office and Home Office – have all withheld more requests than they granted, according to the report by campaign group openDemocracy.
An investigation by the group found the secretive Clearing House unit gives advice to other government departments on how to avoid disclosing information.
Official guidance states FOI requests, which can be made by any member of the public, should be ‘applicant blind’.
Requests are supposed to be 'applicant blind'
(Image: Getty Images)
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That means officials aren’t supposed to look up the person asking for information, or change their response as a result.
But openDemocracy claims to have found the Clearing House collates ‘watch lists’ of journalists and details about their work.
It says a daily ‘round robin’ email the contains details of the all requests Clearing House is advising on, along with the name of the person requesting the information and advice for how to deal with it.
It's understood journalists from the Daily Mirror, the Guardian, The Times and the BBC were on the alleged ‘black lists’.
The lists are also understood to include researchers from charities and campaign groups.
Internal emails published by openDemocracy show government officials “flagging” requests made by journalists – and noting they will require additional “sign off” as a result.
Lawyers are preparing a bid to force the Cabinet Office to reveal full details of how the unit operates.
Tory MP David Davis called on ministers to explain why they continue with an operation which is “certainly against the spirit of that Act – and probably the letter, too.”
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And Labour ’s Shadow Cabinet Office Minister Helen Hayes told openDemocracy: “This is extremely troubling.
“If the cabinet office is interfering in FOI requests and seeking to work around the requirements of the Act by blacklisting journalists, it is a grave threat to our values and transparency in our democracy.”
A Government spokesman said: “The Cabinet Office plays an important role through the FOI Clearing House of ensuring there is a standard approach across government in the way we consider and respond to requests.
“With increasing transparency, we receive increasingly more complex requests under Freedom of Information.
"We must balance the public need to make information available with our duty to protect sensitive information and ensure national security."