openDemocracy accuses UK Government of Orwellian units and launches legal action for transparency
28 July 2021
openDemocracy, an independent global media platform has won a landmark legal victory against the UK Government. The UK Government has been ordered to release documents about ‘Clearing House’, which is a little-known unit that sits at the heart of Government. The unit has been accused of obstructing the release of material requested by the public under the Freedom of Information Act.
In 2018, openDemocracy investigated the ‘Clearing House’ unit in the Cabinet Office and found the unit had been vetting Freedom of Information (FOI) requests and sharing personal information about journalists across Government in ways experts believed could be in breach of the law. openDemocracy subsequently requested that the Cabinet Office release information about the unit but it declined.
The Cabinet Office declined to disclose full details about the Clearing House operation under the Freedom of Information Act despite the FOI watchdog, and the Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO), ordering it to do so. Following this refusal, the ICO backed openDemocracy and sought action in the form of an information tribunal case in a bid to bring transparency to the unit, which has been hailed as ‘Orwellian’.
In its ruling, the tribunal said:
"Co-ordination of Government activity is a key part of the work of the Cabinet Office as is making the way Government works more transparent. It is clear that over the years there has been a lacuna in public information about how these two important roles are brought together to ensure that Government transparency is effective across the whole of Government."
In his written judgment, Judge Hughes backed openDemocracy and the ICO, stating that there was a “profound lack of transparency about the operation.” Additionally, Judge Hughes mentioned that the Cabinet Office had misled the tribunal by originally stating that the Clearing House lists included ‘sensitive’ data, which would have justified the withholding of information.
Julian Richards, the openDemocracy editor-in-chief, commented on the ruling stating:
“This tribunal ruling completely vindicates openDemocracy’s journalism, which has shown how freedom of information is being undermined at the very heart of Government. We should not have had to go all the way to a tribunal to force the Cabinet Office to comply with basic transparency requirements.”
The judgment has been hailed as a landmark victory by politicians and transparency campaigners. Consequently, the vast majority of information requested in the case has now been released, and the Cabinet Office has published a considerable amount of information on Clearing House, addressing its purpose and remit.
If you would like any further information or advice, please do not hesitate to get in touch with our Media and Entertainment team.
*This information is for guidance purposes only and does not constitute, nor should be regarded, as a substitute for taking legal advice that is tailored to your circumstances.