Written evidence from Guardian News & Media[1] (FOI 38)

Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee

The Cabinet Office Freedom of Information Clearing House inquiry





GNM welcomes the opportunity to respond to the Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee's inquiry into the Clearing House processing of Freedom of Information (FoI) requests. In a democracy, journalists play a vital role in uncovering the truth and holding those in power to account. Multiple academic studies have demonstrated a correlation between press freedom, the prevention of corruption and the promotion of good government[2][3]. The news media, and in particular investigative journalism, plays a crucial role in shining a light on corruption and malfeasance in public office.


GNM believes it is vital that the FOI regime continues to operate in the public interest. Access to information is a key element of the right to freedom of information under Article 10 ECHR, and news gathering has also been recognised in common law as an essential part of the free flow of information and ideas in a democracy[4]. For many years GNM has been a champion of greater openness and transparency of governmental and public bodies.  Our coverage and support for the principles of free information spans decades.[5]


The Freedom of Information Act 2000 (“FOIA”) has been a powerful tool for uncovering wrongdoing, inefficiency, and incompetence as well as for revealing the challenges that public authorities face. The FOIA is of central importance to those who value transparency in the exercise of democratic power and who wish for scrutiny of bodies that spend public money. Open and transparent government is not the same as accountable government.  The FOIA has fundamentally enabled government, that is ministers and civil servants who are, lest we forget, acting on behalf of the British people, to be held accountable.  The FOIA has quickly become a cornerstone of UK press freedom, and we believe it continues to operate in the interests of British people.


The FOIA has been subject to repeated attacks from politicians since its introduction. This is unsurprising, given the role that it plays in bringing to light information that creates difficult questions for politicians. Numerous attempts have been made to reduce the situations in which FoI requests might be made. For example, changes to fees were proposed in 2006[6], and a clampdown on so called 'industrial users' was considered in 2013[7].  An Independent Commission, set up by the Cabinet Office to examine the functioning of the FOIA, reported in 2016[8].  The Commission expressed concern “about the approach of public authorities (particularly central government) to some requests”, particularly the resistance to requests on the basis that it would “set a precedent for similar requests regardless of the content”, which it described as a “weak basis on which to refuse a request.” It also hoped that the transfer of policy responsibility for the Act to the Cabinet Office provides an opportunity “for some central leadership … to remind public authorities that they should not be resisting requests solely on the basis that providing the requested information will set an unwelcome precedent regardless of the content.” [9]  The Commission also called for a review of the ICO’s FOI budget to examine whether it was sufficient to perform its oversight role, and called for greater enforcement powers for the ICO, neither of which appear to have been resolved.


After careful scrutiny, each of the recent investigations into the FOIA has noted its value in promoting more transparent government, and in large part that the FOIA should be strengthened, rather than becoming more restrictive.  The only restrictive change being to provide an absolute exemption for the heir has been successful[10].


It is a fundamental right of a free people to be able to see and scrutinise government decisions made on their behalf. The use of the FOIA to strengthen the reporting of the news media helps to inform the general public, and raise awareness of key public interest issues through investigative journalism. The societal benefits of investigative journalism can be huge: lives saved, corruption exposed, environments improved and governments interests held accountable.


The FOIA enables journalists and others to seek out information that government bodies may be reluctant to see the light of day, but embarrassment of the government is not a sufficient reason to override the interests of transparency and accountability. Transparency is vital if journalists are to be able to hold powerful figures to account. This is no more true than during the recent covid-19 pandemic.


The covid-19 pandemic has been a challenging and extraordinary period of time.  High quality news has never been more important, with more people than ever before seeking out trusted news sites for information. GNM’s coverage of the pandemic was also recognised as some of the most trusted among the major news brands[11]. Oxford University’s Reuters Institute for Journalism cited the Guardian as doing the best job[12] of all the papers among UK media outlets, and ranked us as the second most visited UK news site for coronavirus updates, second only to the BBC. One year on from the UK’s first national lockdown, a survey revealed that when it comes to reporting on the coronavirus pandemic, the UK’s frontline workers in the NHS and teaching turn to the Guardian for coverage they can trust[13].  Yet the creation of such accountability journalism is being made harder by the government’s current approach to the FOIA.


We agree with openDemocracy’s view that there is a long-term trend towards greater secrecy in central government. Cabinet Office statistics referenced in openDemocracy’s ‘Art of Darkness’ report[14] show that the percentage of requests granted in full has declined every year since 2010 – from a high of 62% in 2010 to 44% in 2019. The percentage of requests withheld in full has steadily increased from 21% in 2010 to 35% in 2019.


In parallel with this growing culture of secrecy, we note that trust in the UK government has sunk to record low levels[15]. According to the 2021 Edelman Trust Barometer, trust in government ‘to do the right thing’ collapsed 16 points from 60% at the height of the first lockdown in April 2020, to 44% at the height of the third lockdown in February 2021.  Perhaps most worryingly, some 53% of respondents in the UK believe that the government is purposely trying to mislead them.


The Reporters Without Borders' 2021 World Press Freedom Index cited the clearing house as a key concern, noting that a “secret government unit appeared to serve as a clearing house for freedom of information requests, and critical media outlets found themselves blacklisted or facing other restrictions. Critical reporting on the government’s Covid-19 response was met with vindictive official reactions.”[16]


GNM has witnessed an increasingly hostile attitude towards the press, including restricting access to particular journalists to press briefings[17].  This sort of behaviour undermines wider confidence in the treatment of FOI requests run through the Clearing House, due to a lack of transparency in how the centralised function operates.


In a recent interview, the Guardian’s head of investigations, Paul Lewis, said that the government’s approach is “much more aggressive than anything we’ve seen in the past” and echoes of Donald Trump’s relationship with the media in the UK government’s communications operation during the Covid-19 outbreak[18]. During the peak of the crisis, a number of government departments published lengthy blog posts – sometimes up to 3,000 words – responding directly to news stories and typically decrying the journalism as inaccurate.  As Lewis noted, “it’s been disappointing that in this time when we really do need maximum transparency and honesty and openness – that’s how societies function best in times of crisis – that we have not seen that.” [19]


On that basis, we are concerned by recent comments from the UK’s new information commissioner, John Edwards, that some people were “abusing” the Freedom of Information (FOI) Act and his statement that it is “legitimate” to ask requesters to meet the cost of digging out the relevant information[20]. This view runs counter to the views of the 2016 report of the Independent Commission on Freedom of Information, which was not “persuaded that there are any convincing arguments in favour of charging fees for requests and therefore we make no proposals for change.”[21]  It is disappointing that the new Information Commissioner appears to favour the introduction of fees, which could serve to reduce access to information that could be of benefit to society.  We believe that access to such information should be made more easily accessible, not less.


We remain alarmed by the Home Office’s proposals to reform the Official Secrets Act[22] which could threaten investigative journalism and will make it easier to jail whistleblowers and journalists. The twin efforts to restrict access to information through the rejection of legitimate requests under the FOIA via the Clearing House, combined with attempts to criminalise whistleblowers and journalists through changes to the Official Secrets Act, appear aimed at closing down journalistic investigations into the administration of government. In a modern democracy and a global digital environment, responsible journalism should be properly respected and protected, not threatened and chilled in this manner. 


GNM response to inquiry questions


       The Cabinet Office’s compliance with and implementation of the Freedom of Information Act 2000;

       The role and operation of the Cabinet Office Freedom of Information Clearing House, including:

       Its handling of the cases that come to it;

       Its role in advising on and coordination of the handling of Freedom of Information cases across Government.


Applicant blind basis


In November 2020, openDemocracy published a report[23] on the “clearing house”, a centralised unit within government, that collates lists of FOI requests - including those from journalists - with details of those requests, and advice on how to respond. According to the openDemocracy report, the Clearing House circulates a daily list of FOI requests to up to 70 departments and public bodies that contains a list of all those FOIA requests which have been sent to multiple departments.


The Cabinet Office has stated that all requests are considered in an applicant blind manner  and that the FOI process complies with relevant protections under the Data Protection Act 2018. It does however appear that a number of government departments and non-departmental public bodies have been referring FOI requests from journalists and researchers to the Clearing House.


On 19 December 2020, Gill Philips, the director of editorial legal at Guardian News & Media (GNM) wrote to the Cabinet Office to ask about the operation of the Clearing House, including questions about its treatment of FOI requests from journalists employed by GNM.   The letter specifically asked for an annual breakdown of “how many FOI requests by Guardian journalists have been referred to or through the ‘Clearing House’.


In a response on 18th March 2021, then Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, Michael Gove MP, stated that “the identify of the requestor is not a material consideration and the occupation of the requestor is not included in the list… referrals to the Clearing House inbox are made on the basis of the subject matter of the request, not on the basis of the request… All requests are considered applicant-blind and the occupation of the requestor is not used as an identifier”.[24] 


An article in Politico, published on June 12th 2021, appears to contradict this statement.  That article concerns documents, sent in error to Politico, which “do not contain names but do identify where requests came from — including references to Guardian, POLITICO and BBC journalists, as well as the office of Shadow Trade Secretary Emily Thornberry and the NGO, the Campaign Against Arms Trade.”[25] The article appears to suggest that the Clearing House does in fact triage FOI requests based in part on the identity of the applicant, particularly the nature of the applicant's work.


A subject access request by the journalist Jenna Corderey, revealed internal correspondence, the author of which flagged that “Jenna Corderoy is a journalist” and that “Once the response is confirmed, I’ll just need [redacted] to sign off on this before it goes out, since Jenna Corderoy is a reporter for openDemocracy.”[26]


This correspondence suggests that, regardless of the apparent intention of the Cabinet Office, in practice, journalists’ inquiries are being treated differently.  This practice appears to sit in conflict with the Freedom Of Information Act 2000, which states that applications should be dealt with in an "applicant-blind" fashion, "without reference to the identity of the applicant."


Notwithstanding that Ms Phillips’ letter of 19 December 2020,  made a request for certain information and a copy of the advice that the Clearing House gave to departments on how to reply with individual requests, the reply from the Cabinet Office does not deal with those requests; this disregard is a reflection of the dismissive way in which the Cabinet Office has treated this whole affair. To the extent that Ms Phillips’ requests were under FOIA, the Cabinet Office appears to be in breach.    


According to the remit of the Clearing House,[27] FOI requests may be referred to it, on the basis that there is an “expectation there will be significant wider interest in the topic of the request at the time”. This could in theory mean that any request from a journalist, which could ultimately result in publication, can be referred to the Clearing House merely because there can be a reasonable expectation that if the requested information is of interest to a journalist, it will have significantly wider interest.


There are other factors listed in the remit which may also result in a journalist's FOI request being referred to the Clearing House. For instance ‘cases involving high political sensitivity’ and ‘ministers/very senior officials including collective responsibility conduct, diaries and personal information’. Indeed, the remit of the Clearing House gives government departments considerable latitude to refer high profile requests to the body, but the effect of doing so is not transparent because so little information is put into the public domain about what advice is given and action taken by individual government departments as a result of that advice. It must at least be a possibility that one of the reasons that the Clearing House exists is for public relations and party political purposes. Indeed, the former Duchy of Lancaster appeared to concede this point in his  letter to GNM, stating  that it “is appropriate for departments to prepare for possible media interest in information released under FOI but that consideration does not form part of the decision on whether or not to release the information.”[28]


The FOI requests made by journalists can reveal the nature of the issues under investigation. Obviously when journalists ask for information from potential subjects of their investigations they do so knowing that they are thereby revealing something about what they are working on before publication. However, they do not do so with the expectation that immediately after the enquiry is made to one public body, that enquiry is also provided to a wide range of other public authorities. 


Any interference by the state or its officials with the legitimate activities of journalists raises serious issues, and erodes and undermines the rights and freedoms of journalistic independence as encapsulated in Article 10 of the European Convention on Human Rights. All the more so if that interference is covert, and has the effect of creating blacklists of journalistic requests.


Given the seeming contradictions between the stated operation of the Clearing House, and the actual operation of the Clearing House, GNM welcomes the Committees investigation into the ‘round robin’ practices, which we hope will lead to clarity on whether the operation of the Clearing House violates the “applicant blind” requirements of FOIA.



FOI delays


In an open letter to the government in February,[29] GNM editor-in-chief, Katharine Viner along with six other UK editors, criticised the government for “time-wasting on legitimate FOI requests”, saying it stands “at odds with its global commitments to press freedom”.


The government routinely uses threats to national security and public interest immunity to avoid accountability processes. Feedback from GNM editorial colleagues suggests that some journalists are confronted with unreasonable delays in processing their FoI requests, without any prospect of meaningful sanction for delay or misinformation about FoI requests. Journalists can wait months or longer to receive a response from the government, for a process that should take a maximum of 20 working days.


While some public bodies have played a positive role in advising and assisting journalists, for example, helping requesters to narrow their requests in order to avoid exceeding the costs limit in s12 of FoI, other public bodies have resisted offering guidance or help—for example, refusing to provide a schedule of material until the first day of an appeal to the Tribunal. Some public bodies have resisted day to day journalistic enquiries from journalists, treating them instead as FoI requests, providing the opportunity for public authorities to kick journalistic enquiries “into the long grass”. The internal review stage of the FOI process has no time limit, which means the government can ignore an FOI request indefinitely.


The Independent Commission on FOIA, found in its 2016 report, that “internal reviews can take a substantial amount of time. For example, for internal reviews completed in 2014 by central government bodies, 62% of these reviews took 20 working days or fewer; 30% took between 21 and 60 working days; 5% took between 60 and 100 days; and 2% took more than 100 days.”  That review suggested that “a requirement be introduced that all internal reviews are completed within 20 working days.” While the government did issue revised guidance on how public bodies should respond to FOIA requests[30] we are not aware of this change having been made a statutory requirement, as per the Independent Commission’s recommendation.


The use of internal reviews to delay the newsworthiness of a story, which is often connected to the timeliness of an event, should be tackled as per the Independent Commission’s recommendation. It is vital that the Committee puts pressure on the government to reduce unnecessary delays in responding to requests, in order to ensure that the FOI process operates in the public interest.


What is the purpose of a centralised approach to FOIA requests?


It is not clear legally, why is it necessary to share information in cross departmental round robin requests given that each separate public authority has an obligation to provide information it holds in respect of a FOI request? All of the public authorities hold different information but there may be some overlap between them. They cannot fulfil their legal obligations by cross referring to the information provided by a separate public authority.


The avowed reasons for the Clearing House is set out in the remit of the Clearing House which was published in March 2021. The Clearing House function helps ensure there is a consistent approach across government to requests for information which are made to a number of different government departments. The Cabinet office stated in their letter to GNM that there is “public benefit in ensuring that there is a consistent approach in replying to multiple requests; it makes sure that exemptions are applied in a consistent and legal way, and avoids situations where different departments might give contradictory replies. It would cause public confusion if a freedom of information request to two different departments asking for the same information which was held by both departments resulted in one department agreeing to disclosure, and one department decided not to disclose.”


This obligation to compare requests through the Clearing House, appears to create further work for the separate departments, and raises concerns that the purpose of the Clearing House may in fact be to withhold information and to share the reasoning for withholding that information between government departments.


It appears that the Clearing House may in part be intended to prevent applicants for information from receiving information from different departments independently of each other. This approach appears to contradict the FOIA, which is stated to be ‘An Act to make provision for the disclosure of information held by public authorities’[31], and only in limited circumstances restrict it. It is not an Act to restrict the publication of information and only in limited circumstances make it available.


The Cabinet Office appears to suggest that public authorities cannot form their own views about the applicability of the exemptions applying to the information in their possession, and that if they come to different conclusions based on the information available to them, then one of them may be wrong. Since a number of the provisions of the Act are qualified exemptions, and depend upon the public authority forming a judgment weighing the public interest in disclosure against the public interest in the use of the exemption, it is entirely conceivable that two public authorities could quite properly and independently form differing views on the information in their possession. Given that the public authority requested has to form the view itself it would be improper for the Cabinet Office, or indeed another public authority, to lead them to follow another course of action based on other information. The Clearing House appears to discourage public authorities from forming an independent view based on the evidence in their possession.  The Committee should establish whether the primary reason for having a round robin circulation list is to make it easier to withhold information from applicants?  This would clearly be contrary to the spirit and the letter of the FOIA legislation.


Compliance with GDPR and Data Protection Act 2018


When an FOI request is referred to the Clearing House, journalists are not notified that their request has been provided to multiple public bodies. This means that the collection, compilation, retention and circulation of personal data between public bodies, is being done without first seeking the permission or informing the individual making that request. 


While the government’s webpage on how to make an FOI request[32] does state that if “you’ve sent an FOI request to several government departments, they may share your name and request between them”, the same page suggests that no “other details will be shared and your information will not be used for any other purpose.”  Given that it appears that journalistic requests are flagged when circulated as part of the Clearing House ‘round robin’, this statement appears to be incorrect. 


On the face of it, the Clearing House practices appear not to comply with the Data Protection Act 2018, as personal data is not being processed in a fair and transparent manner. By distributing ‘round robin’ lists between public authorities, which are presumably stored and processed by every single department listed, the Cabinet Office is not only placing itself in breach of the obligations of the Data Protection Act 2018, but is also potentially causing other public authorities to be in breach of that legislation.


Expansion of FOIA scope


Given the direction of travel in terms of the delivery of public services by private enterprise, NGOs and other bodies, there is a strong argument for broadening FoI legislation to take account of this new form of Government service delivery.  This was an argument that was broadly accepted by the Independent Commission on FOIA, albeit with financial thresholds in place to prevent this obligation being overly burdensome on public bodies.[33]


The FOIA makes provision for hybrid authorities that have a public function (and are subject to the FOIA regime) and also are commercial (and are not required to comply with FOIA in those aspects of their work. It would appear logical that, to the extent that public roles are contracted out to private bodies, that those private bodies should fall within the FOIA regime in respect of those duties.  This change could be explicit in legislation, or by the government making its FoI obligations clear in public contracts. This is an argument accepted by many individuals across the political spectrum, who argue that the principles of transparency and scrutiny of public finances require that where the public purse is being spent on the private sector (for example, in relation to the recent Covid-19 contracts[34]) transparency obligations should apply. The danger is that otherwise by contracting out responsibilities, the government is also taking certain public responsibilities out of the ambit of the FOIA.


What public authorities refer their FOIA requests to the Clearing House?


The Cabinet Office has published a list of public authorities that are ‘within the Clearing House remit’ (19 ministerial departments and 8 non-ministerial departments). The Cabinet Office stated its letter to Ms Phillips dated 18th March 2021, that:


‘non-departmental public bodies are not normally covered, although it may be that requests to those bodies are referred to the Cabinet Office through sponsor departments.’


This could mean that FOIA requests made to any public authority inside or outside government could, by being referred to one of the many ministerial or non-ministerial departments, be dealt with by the Clearing House. The Committee should seek to clarify which public authorities have been advised by the Clearing House, and whether those public authorities have disclosed to the applicants for information under the FOIA, that their personal data and details about their requests have been passed on to the Cabinet Office?


Enhancing the Information Commissioner’s FOI funding and function


In its review of the functioning of the FOIA, the Independent Commission report noted that the Information Commissioner “provided evidence that he is limited by what he can do outside his core duties by his existing budget, and any new duties would need to be properly resourced.”[35] That review found that the “budget has been reduced year-on-year and is now frozen. This is in spite of the volume of requests made under the Act, and the EIRs, increasingly significantly over the same period”.[36]   The 2016 review recommended that “the government should review whether the existing funding for the IC is adequate.”  We are not aware that such a review took place.  Analysis from openDemocracy suggests not, given that the ICO’s FOI budget has been cut by 41% in the last ten years, while its complaint caseload has increased by 46%[37]


GNM also agrees with a recommendation of the 2016 Independent Commission about the need to strengthen the ICO’s enforcement powers so that “the IC is given responsibility and powers of enforcement to ensure that public authorities are meeting their obligations to proactively publish information.”[38]


The Cabinet Office’s Clearing House centralised function


In June, the government lost a legal battle to prevent the release of documents about the Clearing House under the Freedom of Information Act. In a written judgment, Judge Hughes supported the Information Commissioner’s view that there was a “profound lack of transparency about the operation” that “might appear … to extend to ministers”. Hughes also said there was a “lacuna in public information” about how the Cabinet Office ensured transparency and that the tribunal had been misled by the Cabinet Office.


Regardless of when the Clearing House function was created, there is nothing in the legislation to suggest such a function is necessary or even contemplated under the FOIA. The obligations set out in Schedule 1 of the Act to disclose information are imposed on public authorities all of which are treated and listed separately[39]:


(1)   Any person making a request for information to a public authority is entitled—

(a)   to be informed in writing by the public authority whether it holds information of the description specified in the request, and

(b)   if that is the case, to have that information communicated to him.


There does not appear to be a generalised right to approach one public authority and then receive a response from another public authority. The obligation in Schedule 16 of the Act to provide advice and assistance to those requesting information is similarly on the particular public authority asked and not for that public authority to go to other public authorities under the Act to ask for their assistance.


The Code of Practice[40] to the Act makes this even clearer, stating that the sharing of FOI requests between public authorities without previously obtaining consent of the person who made the request is actually contrary to the provisions of the legislation:


“2.12 In most cases where a public authority does not hold the information, but thinks that another public authority does, they should respond to the applicant to inform them that the requested information is not held by them, and that it may be held by another public authority. The public authority should, as best practice where they can, provide the contact details for the public authority they believe holds the requested information.


2.13 Where the public authority who originally received the request wishes to ask a different public authority directly to deal with the request by transferring it to them, this should only be done with the applicant’s agreement in case the requester objects to their details being passed on. This is because public authorities have a duty to respond to a requester and confirm whether or not they hold information in scope of the request as set out in paragraph 2.12 above.”


This general rule that public authorities are considered separate from each other applies throughout the FOIA. It is therefore unclear what purpose the Clearing House serves other than to allow the government to keep a record of FOI requests and manage the disclosure of information across all government departments.


Little is known about the structure and inner workings of the Clearing House, or the advice that it provides to other government departments. This lack of transparency risks undermining the UK government’s stated commitment to defending press freedom[41], suggesting that this commitment only holds true whilst it is convenient for the government.


It is concerning that the Cabinet Office, which took responsibility for freedom of information policy in 2015[42], has one of the worst records in government on providing access to information[43]. Even if such a centralised function such as the Clearing House was considered appropriate, it is questionable whether the Cabinet Office should be placed in the lead role for such a regime. The record of the Cabinet Office’s[44] handling of its own FOI requests includes late responses, stonewalling and refusing requests and a significant number of internal review decisions turning down FOI requests being overturned by the Information Commissioner and the Information Tribunal.


As noted earlier in this response, there is some persisting ambiguity about what the Clearing House actually does, which the Committee inquiry is well placed to clarify.  The Cabinet Office wrote in its 18 March 2021 letter that the “Cabinet Office provides advice, and does not direct departments on how to respond to individual FOI cases nor does it direct departments to block FOI requests.” However, slightly different evidence was provided to the Information Tribunal about the nature of the Cabinet Office’s role, with a Deputy Director in the Cabinet Office, with responsibility for  FOI and Transparency Data, saying that “Clearing House advice was a brief review process that departments did not have to follow; “if they don’t follow they explain.”


If the role of the Clearing House is merely in an advisory capacity, it is not clear why public authorities have to explain themselves to the Clearing House if they choose not to follow that advice? It would suggest that it actually has a supervisory role over other public authorities, rather than merely an advisory one.


It has become clear that the involvement of the Clearing House has actually resulted in other public authorities being left in the position that they are unable to comply with their own FOI obligations in a timely manner[45]. An Open Democracy investigation[46] found that the Clearing House has adversely affected both the timing of the response and what information has been disclosed by public authorities. The Clearing House appears, for example, to have been responsible for discouraging information about HIV infected blood being given to haemophiliacs from being disclosed by the Treasury in response to a FOI request made by Jason Evans in 2018[47].


The Committee is in a unique position to request evidence from politicians in charge of the function and liaise with the civil service to better understand the role of the Clearing House, how it is run and make appropriate recommendations to ensure the Freedom of Information Act is followed correctly. The FOI regime needs to operate without favour and the secrecy surrounding the Clearing House raises concerns about the lack of transparency in the UK’s democracy.


Recent examples of FOI cases


We thought it might be useful to the Committee to have recent examples of stories that have been impacted by delays to the release of information requested under the FOIA. 


In 2020, the Guardian’s investigations team unpicked the allegations of “chumocracy” at the heart of the government’s pandemic response[48], with a series of revelatory stories about secret Covid contracts. During this period the government refused to disclose information on a number of occasions:


       The Guardian requested a copy of the Hanbury Strategy PR contract under FOIA. The Cabinet Office argued that it was not required to disclose a copy at the moment as it was planning to publish it in the future[49]. News of the legal challenge emerged as the Guardian reported that the Cabinet Office refused to disclose any documents under the Freedom of Information Act that would explain what was discussed at an official meeting between Gove and Hanbury on 6 February. The Cabinet Office said disclosure of the documents “would weaken ministers’ ability to discuss controversial and sensitive topics free from premature public scrutiny”. The only information that has been made public by the Cabinet Office about the meeting is that it was about “the Union and devolution”[50].

       The Cabinet Office also delayed responding to a freedom of information request by the Guardian for a list of contracts that it has given to Fleetwood Strategy, claiming that publishing the information could damage commercial interests[51].

       Documents relating to a prominent Conservative donor who lobbied a government minister to speed up the award of a £65m government contract to his company supplying face masks, were revealed in heavily censored documents released to the Guardian after a freedom of information request.[52]



September 2021



[1] Guardian News & Media (GNM) is a leading British-owned, independent, news media business publishing theguardian.com and the Guardian and Observer newspapers. Both the Guardian and Observer have received global acclaim for investigations, including persistent investigations into phone hacking amongst the UK press, the Paradise Papers and Panama Papers, Cambridge Analytica and the Pegasus Project. GNM also fought a ten year battle to gain access to the so-called Black Spider letters, which were released after a freedom of information tribunal ruled that there was an “overall public interest for there to be transparency as to how and when Prince Charles seeks to influence government”.  As well as being the UK’s largest quality news brand, the Guardian and Observer have pioneered a highly distinctive, open approach to publishing on the web and it has achieved significant global audience growth over the past 20 years.

[2] Bolsius, 2012; Brunetti and Weder, 2003; Chowdhury, 2004; Fardig, Andersson, and Oscarsson, 2011

[3] https://www.unodc.org/e4j/en/anti-corruption/module-10/key-issues/the-role-of-the-media-in-fighting-corruption.html

[4]R ex parte Simms & O’Brien 1999

[5] See http://www.theguardian.com/politics/freedomofinformation


[7] http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-politics-21187250

[8] https://www.gov.uk/government/news/independent-commission-on-freedom-of-information-report-lord-burns-message


[10] https://www.indexoncensorship.org/2011/03/royalty-free-freedom-of-information/




[14] https://www.documentcloud.org/documents/20415987-art-of-darkness-opendemocracy

[15] https://www.politico.eu/article/survey-trust-in-british-government-dropped-to-record-low/

[16] https://rsf.org/en/united-kingdom


[18] https://pressgazette.co.uk/guardian-head-of-investigations-paul-lewis-interview-coronavirus/

[19] https://pressgazette.co.uk/guardian-head-of-investigations-paul-lewis-interview-coronavirus/

[20] https://www.opendemocracy.net/en/freedom-of-information/uk-government-could-charge-fees-requesting-official-information/

[21] https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/504139/Independent_Freedom_of_Information_Commission_Report.pdf

[22] https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/986013/Consultation_Document_-_Legislation_to_Counter_State_Threats.pdf

[23] https://www.documentcloud.org/documents/20415987-art-of-darkness-opendemocracy





[28] https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/970833/CDL_letter_to_the_Guardian.pdf

[29] https://www.theguardian.com/politics/2021/feb/08/uk-editors-call-on-ministers-to-protect-freedom-of-information

[30] https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/744071/CoP_FOI_Code_of_Practice_-_Minor_Amendments_20180926_.pdf

[31] https://www.legislation.gov.uk/ukpga/2000/36/enacted/data.xht?view=snippet&wrap=true

[32] https://www.gov.uk/make-a-freedom-of-information-request/how-to-make-an-foi-request

[33] See for example, page 51 of the final report https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/504139/Independent_Freedom_of_Information_Commission_Report.pdf

[34] https://www.theguardian.com/world/2020/nov/15/chumocracy-covid-revealed-shape-tory-establishment

[35] https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/504139/Independent_Freedom_of_Information_Commission_Report.pdf

[36] https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/504139/Independent_Freedom_of_Information_Commission_Report.pdf

[37] https://www.opendemocracy.net/en/freedom-of-information/how-uk-government-undermining-freedom-information-act/

[38] https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/504139/Independent_Freedom_of_Information_Commission_Report.pdf

[39] https://www.legislation.gov.uk/ukpga/2000/36/schedule/1

[40] https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/744071/CoP_FOI_Code_of_Practice_-_Minor_Amendments_20180926_.pdf

[41] https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/global-pledge-on-media-freedom

[42] https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/cabinet-office-and-freedom-of-information

[43] https://www.theguardian.com/politics/2020/nov/24/orwellian-government-unit-obstructs-freedom-of-information-says-report

[44] https://www.opendemocracy.net/en/freedom-of-information/how-uk-government-undermining-freedom-information-act/

[45] https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2021/feb/13/freedom-of-information-is-right-but-the-government-is-intent-on-suppressing-it

[46] https://www.opendemocracy.net/en/freedom-of-information/revealed-governments-orwellian-unit-blocked-infected-blood-scandal-disclosure/

[47] https://www.theguardian.com/uk-news/2020/sep/21/infected-blood-scandal-treasury-refuses-to-publish-key-documents-foi

[48] https://www.theguardian.com/world/2020/nov/15/chumocracy-covid-revealed-shape-tory-establishment

[49] https://www.theguardian.com/world/2020/sep/04/dominic-cummings-allys-pr-firm-hanbury-strategy-given-covid-19-contracts-without-tenders

[50] https://www.theguardian.com/world/2020/oct/05/lawyers-accuse-cabinet-of-bias-over-cummings-allys-pr-firm-contract-hanbury-

[51] https://www.theguardian.com/world/2020/dec/14/cabinet-office-gave-contract-to-firm-co-founded-by-tory-pollster-fleetwood-strategy-isaac-levido

[52] https://www.theguardian.com/world/2021/apr/01/tory-donor-lobbied-minister-to-speed-up-his-65m-ppe-deal