Written evidence from George Docherty[1] (FOI 45)

Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee

The Cabinet Office Freedom of Information Clearing House inquiry

 

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

a)      I believe it reasonable, at this stage, to submit information / evidence about the cases detailed below which fall within your Inquiry’s remit relating, in particular, to  “The Cabinet Office’s compliance with and implementation of the Freedom of Information Act 2000”. I take this to include how the Cabinet Office deals with FoI  requests made directly to it and which fall within their sphere.

 

b)     My recent requests were in connection with their handling of correspondence / complaints (and requests for other information) following Dominic Cummings’ controversial Covid lockdown arrangements and Matt Hancock’s / Gina Coladangelo’s breach of the Covid rules and other related issues. My request relating to Dominic Cummings was first made on 29 May 2020 and about Matt Hancock / Gina Coladangelo on 9 July 2021. Both requests are still ongoing. These are unlikely to be settled before your deadline for submissions on 30 September 2021. ICO have informed me that, in the Cummings case, the Cabinet Office official involved is on leave until early October 2021. I am intending to refer the Hancock / Coladangelo case to the ICO as the Cabinet Office internal review response, just recently received on 24 September 2021, is unsatisfactory.

 

c)      In the Cummings case, Cabinet Office initial response said it did not hold the information requested as correspondence was held for only 3 weeks then destroyed. I asked for an internal review which responded in the same way. However, following the intervention of the ICO, Cabinet Office admitted it held over 20,000 items of correspondence (electronic and hard copies) related to my request. They applied a Section 12 exemption to parts of my request e.g., details of the numbers of such correspondence treated as complaints. Despite the ICO intervention Cabinet Office still had not fully responded to the other parts of my request. Part of the unanswered request included information on how the Cabinet Office handled correspondence, including complaints and other Cabinet Office guidance / instructions on how they processed FoI requests made to the Cabinet Office. In their response Cabinet Office advised me that they had recently introduced revised correspondence handling criteria, because of Covid. I asked for details of that too. However, the very clear inference of the limited information about that revised criteria was that very few items of correspondence / complaints within the scope of my request received any response. In fact, the ICO enquiries disclosed that only 17 replies were issued.

 

d)     In the Hancock / Coladangelo case the requested details related, in the main, to correspondence / complaints about these two individuals and very specific related events viz. Ms Colandangelo’s appointments as aide and NED at Mr. Hancock’s former Department and information on how the reported breaches of the Ministerial Code, Covid Rules and Rules relating to Aides and NED involving Mr Hancock and Ms Colandangelo were dealt with.

 

e)      The initial response was a blanket refusal under Section 12. In their response to my request for an internal review, Cabinet Office referred to having found 1101 items in one inbox ( presumably correspondence / complaints) and said there were several other relevant inboxes with related correspondence which had not been searched. They said that the other information relating to how the misconduct, breaches etc. were dealt with etc also fell within Section 12 as that information was also spread across multiple inboxes. Searching for both types of information could therefore not be done within the prescribed cost limits. As with the Cummings case, it is reasonable to presume the majority of the 1101 items mentioned did relate to Mr Hancock’s and Ms Colandangelo’s breach of the Covid rules etc. and expressed dissatisfaction about their conduct. They therefore were complaints and, like the Cummings case, should have been recorded as such and dealt with via the Cabinet Office complaints process and counted as correspondence, or complaints, that required a response / substantive reply.

 

f)       As the lead Department on policy relating to records management, especially relating to handling FoI enquiries, Cabinet Office are not a shining example. To initially claim they did not have any records relating to my Cummings request, but then when pressed by ICO, admit to having over 20,000 items and their inability to analyse correspondence in both example cases, raises some serious issues.

 

g)     Notwithstanding any difficulties or delays arising because of the pandemic, it seems that many thousands of items of correspondence (hard copy and electronic) were not properly registered, processed, replied to or subject to reasonable retention and disposal processes in accordance with ICO / Lord Chancellor’s good records management principles as well as the Cabinet Office own guidance on handling correspondence. The Cabinet Office own guidance states: All correspondence within a department’s remit should receive a substantive reply.” This clearly was not done in both cases.

 

h)     Their approach amounts to a “destroy before reading” policy, especially if Cabinet Office were retaining items for only 3 weeks – which hardly covers the period when such correspondence was or should have been processed for responses nor allows time for any follow up action by the correspondents who may have got an unsatisfactory response or in this case, no response at all. More significantly, such poor processes impede or entirely prevents their ability to properly conduct official business, especially their responsibilities to comply with the FoI Act in responding fully to reasonable requests.

 

i)       Similar concerns about poor records management processes also arise in the second example relating to Hancock / Coladangelo. The information requested related, in the main, to only two individuals and very specific events viz. the correspondence / complaints generated by their breach of the Covid rules and the rectitude of the appointment by Mr Hancock of Ms. Coladangelo as an aide and NED in his Department when they were in a close personal relationship. However, Cabinet Office viewed my request as covering a “very broad” type of information held in numerous inboxes (files?) when this need not have been the case. It is perplexing that correspondence relating to such specific subjects / individuals should be spread around so many inboxes or files. At most, if the correspondence and subject matters had been properly registered, cross referenced and processed, there would be no need to have more than 3 or 4 “files” to search for and analyse e.g., a file on complaints about Mr Hancock and Ms. Coladangelo breach of the Covid rules, a file on their alleged misconduct concerning their personal relationship and perhaps their respective HR / personal files.

2. Recommendations on Cabinet Office handling of FoI requests

a) It is reasonable to presume that the bulk of correspondence from the public etc. to Cabinet Office (and to Government Departments and other public bodies) is these days done by electronic means. Hard copies can be scanned into electronic / computerised  record systems and become part of the digital record systems and be easier to manage. My recent experience raises questions about the records management system used by Cabinet Office. Is it fit for purpose if Cabinet Office initially say they do not have records then say they do but they cannot easily interrogate their system to provide some basic facts and figures?

b) In both examples, the Cabinet Office had not followed reasonable record management processes, in line with ICO / Lord Chancellor’s guidelines, and some common sense. If they had,  their records management system could have been easily searched with relevant key words to produce information about the numbers of the types of correspondence requested. If that had been the case the Cabinet Office could have provided a better response to my initial requests or reviews, rather than denying any records were held or they could not easily search for it.

c) The Cabinet Office Annual Report Annexe B page 279 https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/1002878/15640_CO_Annual_Report_2020_2021_digital_temp.pdf highlights very significant increases in all types of correspondence received, including correspondence from the public and FoI requests.

d) I suggest that a review of the Cabinet Office staffing, record management system and procedures be undertaken. Their computer system either needs updating or tweaked, to improve its ability to properly handle the types and higher volumes of correspondence received in the course of its business; and, in the context of your Inquiry, to trace identifiable recorded information to provide a better service responding to FoI requests.

e) I also suggest the Cabinet Office freely publish more details of information released following FoI requests, on their website and in their Annual Report.

Their website page https://www.gov.uk/search/transparency-and-freedom-of-information-releases?parent=cabinet-office&content_store_document_type%5B%5D=foi_release&organisations%5B%5D=cabinet-office&order=updated-newest shows only 9 items and most are several years old. Their Annual Report and Accounts Annexe B, mentioned above, could also be expanded to include more such details, including data on complaints.                            

3. The Cabinet Office Freedom of Information Clearing House

a) The Cabinet Office Referral Criteria for submitting cases to the Clearing House covers the following matters which were included in my recent requests:

b) It was never mentioned in any response from the Cabinet Office if my requests were referred to the Clearing House.

c) The idea of a unit to ensure consistency in responses to cross-cutting enquiries or “round robin” requests involving 2 or more Departments or bodies is, on the face of it, reasonable. But the same results could be achieved by Departments etc. working between themselves to provide full and consistent responses.

d) It is however unreasonable for requests not falling into those two categories to be subject to second guessing by the Cabinet Office. Departments and other bodies should deal solely with such requests and respond fully “warts and all”; especially if as recently reported the identity or occupation of the requester is not a material consideration in deciding what information is released or if it should be released at all.

4. Recommendations on Cabinet Office Freedom of Information Clearing House

a) The referral criteria for submitting cases to the Clearing House is too wide. Departments etc. should have more discretion to decide if such referral is needed, perhaps after consulting other Departments on any cross cutting issues.

b) If any requests are referred to the Clearing House as well as to any other Department or body, the requester should be informed of that fact and the reasons.

 

September 2021

 


[1] I am an individual who recently made FoI requests to the Cabinet Office.