British newspapers call for probe into Cabinet Office FOI unit after journalists have requests blocked

A collection of British newspapers.

A collection of British newspapers. - Credit: PA

Current and former editors of Britain's newspapers have joined forces to call for an investigation into the government's handling of Freedom of Information (FOI) requests.

In an open letter, they asked for a probe into a Cabinet Office unit named the Clearing House after it was alleged to have profiled journalists and blocked FOI requests.

No 10 has said it remains "fully committed" to its transparency agenda, having "routinely" disclosed information "beyond its obligations".

The letter comes after the website openDemocracy in November published a report showing response rates to FOI requests were at their lowest level since the Freedom of Information Act became law 20 years ago.

The Act was meant to give the public much greater access to information held by authorities.

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The report alleges the Clearing House is disclosing the names of people making requests to the government, which it is not meant to do.

Now the editors, and several former editors, of the Times, Sunday Times, Guardian, Financial Times, Telegraph and Daily Mirror, have signed a strongly worded letter.

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It calls for an investigation into the Clearing House, new measures to speed up Freedom of Information, and a bolstering of the Information Commissioner's Office, which oversees the process.

openDemocracy is also working with a law firm on legal bid to force the Cabinet Office to reveal full details of how the Clearing House operates.

John Witherow, editor of the Times, described the alleged current process as a "disgrace", and said it was "a fundamental right of a free people to be able to see and scrutinise the decisions made on their behalf".

Guardian News and Media's editor-in-chief, Katharine Viner, said the government's handling of FOI's was "at odds with its global commitments to press freedom", as she called for a "clear commitment" to greater transparency and a well-funded information commissioner.

In a statement, the government said a small Cabinet Office team "helps ensure a consistent approach to requests for information".

"This is especially important for complex FOI requests where we must balance the need to make information available with our legal duty to protect sensitive information and national security," it said.

The statement said it had released "more proactive publications than ever before", but it said the coronavirus pandemic "has had an impact on how quickly public authorities are able to respond to FOI requests".

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