In a submission to PACAC’s consultation, the NMA expressed concerns over the Cabinet Office impeding access to public interest information.
FOI requests are intended to be “applicant blind”, meaning that whoever makes the request should not matter. However, says the NMA, it is understood that FOI requests made by journalists to Government bodies are directed to the Cabinet Office’s Clearing House, a department that determines how FOI requests are dealt with; effectively centralising control over what information is released to the public.
It is equally understood that the Clearing House maintains a list of journalists, including details about their work.
The Freedom of Information Act 2000 serves all civilians of the UK without favour, and the Government must adhere to this principle if journalists are to fulfil their civic role, says the NMA.
The NMA expresses concern over the additional screening processes that FOI requests from journalists are subjected to.
“Often journalists must wait months, sometimes years, to receive a response from Government when it should have taken 20 working days, without extension. Such delays have a chilling effect on publication, as news is a perishable commodity.
“The Clearing House can, by its conduct, silence public interest journalism by unreasonably extending the period it takes to respond to an FOI request such that it may no longer be newsworthy,” the NMA said.
The Act has since undergone two major reviews with proposals to add amendments which would reduce unnecessary delays and extensions, which have not been implemented.
In 2020, openDemocracy reported that in the preceding five years, the Cabinet Office granted the fewest (26%), and withheld the most (60%), FOI requests across all of Whitehall.
The NMA also questioned whether the Cabinet Office and its Clearing House, acting as a centralised FOI screening body, is necessary. Government bodies have dealt with FOI requests for over fifteen years, sufficient time for each Governmental body to garner expertise in handling FOI requests – making the Cabinet Office’s supervision superfluous.
Moreover, continues the NMA, given that each department is responsible for justifying its own decisions on FOI requests, it is unclear why the Cabinet Office should direct them on what information to release
The NMA says it welcomes further discussion concerning the inquiry with PACAC.
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