Saturday 12 June 2021 / 12:32 PM Emily Thornberry

Labour demands answers on latest FoI breach

The Labour Party is demanding fresh answers from the government after it was revealed that Freedom of Information (FoI) requests to the Department for International Trade (DIT) are being categorised according to their presentational risk rating, and which organisations the applications have come from.

The POLITICO news website reported on Saturday that the DIT’s entire FoI caseload had been sent in error to one of its journalists twice in the past two weeks.

While the files have been deleted by POLITICO for data protection reasons, it is known that each FoI case was rated red, amber or green according to the presentational risks it raised, and that individual cases were flagged if they had come from different media outlets, NGOs, Members of Parliament, or the office of the Shadow Secretary of State for International Trade, Emily Thornberry.

That categorisation of FoI requests in this way appears to be in direct contravention of the FoI guidelines, which dictate that all requests should be dealt with equally under the rules, and on an ‘applicant-blind’ basis.

POLITICO also reveal that some FoI requests received by the department have been referred to a Cabinet Office ‘Clearing House’ for handling advice, and that – in some cases – the Clearing House has worked “to block the release of documents to journalists against the advice of the trade department’s information officers.”

Those revelations follow Tuesday’s court ruling ordering the government to hand over papers on the functioning of the secretive Cabinet Office Clearing House.

Labour’s Deputy Leader Angela Rayner wrote to Cabinet Secretary Simon Case following the court ruling demanding an investigation into whether Michael Gove broke the Ministerial Code when he told Parliament on 10th December last year that the Clearing House did not exist, and that all FoI requests were dealt with “in exactly the same way”, and on an “applicant-blind” basis.

Emily Thornberry has said in response to the POLITICO story:

“What we are seeing revealed here is something deeply dangerous and corrosive to our democracy: evidence of a government department breaching the FoI guidelines, categorising information according to its sensitivity and the person requesting it, and taking advice on handling requests from the secret Cabinet Office Clearing House.

“It is patently obvious that none of those things are being done in the interests of transparency and integrity; but what we need to know now is whether they are being done to circumvent or delay the government’s obligations under the law, and whether the system in place at the Department for International Trade is in widespread use in other government departments.

“In addition, it is now all the more urgent that the Cabinet Secretary accepts Angela Rayner’s demand for an independent investigation into whether Michael Gove broke the Ministerial Code when he denied the existence of all these practices in his evidence to Parliament last December.”