Could your name be on list to block Freedom of Infomation requests?
DETAILS OF a little-known, secretive "Clearing House" within the Cabinet Office were recently revealed by Open Democracy's Dark Money Investigations team. This Clearing House has been screening all Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) applications to central government and in some cases advising other government departments to block FOIA requests. The number of FOIA requests to government departments that have not been answered at all has risen by 70 per cent in the past five years.
The Clearing House reportedly even sends out a daily email update to Whitehall departments with details of FOIA requests for information it deems "sensitive" - carrying a reputational risk if revealed. The Clearing House in some cases signs off on FOIA requests for other departments.
Alarmingly, heavily redacted data released under FOIA and the Data Protection Act (see below) revealed that journalists from the Times, the Guardian, Privacy International and the BBC have been included on these lists, which name the individual journalists making the requests. This could amount to a list of journalists to be obstructed.
It would be very interesting to see whether any freelance journalists who make FOIA requests are considered enough of a threat for their name to appear in these Clearing House daily updates.
To give an example, the author of this article made occasional FOIA requests to the Home Office in the early 2010s for education magazine EL Gazette, asking about the Home Office's consultation of experts for advice on levels of English language proficiency required for the various types of student visa. Surprise, surprise: the long-delayed and rather feeble responses showed that the Home Office hadn't even bothered to ask the experts at all, while their two different databases on which the information would then have been stored couldn't talk to each other. Did this pattern of awkward questions to the Home Office show up on a Clearing House list with my name on it?
The existence of the Clearing House and its list is a serious threat to FOIA. Under the Act, responses to FOIA requests have to be "requester neutral": decisions on how to respond to such requests should not be influenced by who is asking for the data, whether they are a journalist or not, or which news outlet they are with. Under the Act, citizens or residents of the UK are entitled to information held by public bodies regardless of who they are.
The NUJ is now urging any of its members who have made FOIA requests to central government departments to make Subject Access Requests under the Data Protection Act to those departments to find out what data central government departments has been collecting on journalists. (Subject Access Requests are different to FOIA requests - while FOIA covers data held by public bodies, the Data Protection Act covers personal data on an individual that an organisation, public or otherwise, may hold. Such requests can only be made by or on behalf of that individual.)
If you have made a FOIA request to a Whitehall department in recent years, please see the model letter linked from here to the government department or agency to which you made the request. Please copy in email@example.com - the NUJ Campaigns office. We know that of the Clearing House has existed at least since 2005.
The NUJ's senior campaigns and communications officer Sarah Kavanagh, who is working on this FOIA campaign, told the Freelance that "we definitely want to hear from people if they get anything back: please contact firstname.lastname@example.org." The NUJ asks you to pass on any data you receive about yourself that you're willing to share.
As far as we're aware, the Clearing House covers only Whitehall central government departments ("ministries") and some central government agencies of the Westminster government of the UK. Data on FOIA requests you may have made to local authorities, quangos and devolved administrations are not part of this campaign. If you're unsure whether the central government agency to which you have made FOIA requests is of interest to the NUJ's campaign, check first with Sarah at the above email address.