The British government is operating a secretive internal unit to block requests for information by the public under transparency laws, it has been revealed.
The FOI Clearing House, an "Orwellian" operation within Michael Gove's Cabinet Office, shares personal information about journalists and researchers and has been accused of "blacklisting" people making freedom of information requests.
An investigation by the OpenDemocracy website found the unit issues edicts to other departments to "protect sensitive information", collates lists of journalists and transparency researchers, and even has sign-off powers other government departments' freedom of information requests.
Transparency campaigners and data protection experts said the unit was certainly an attempt to circumvent the transparency protections in the Freedom of Information Act, and possibly even unlawful.
The government is now facing a legal bid from openDemocracy and the law firm Leigh Day to reveal full details about how it operates.
Freedom of information requests are supposed to be "applicant blind", meaning they do not discriminate against the person filing them – but staff at the unit have been caught out singling out individual researchers and journalists.
In open internal email seen by the website, they wrote: “Just flagging that X is a journalist” and “once the response is confirmed, I’ll just need [redacted] to sign off on this before it goes out, since X is a reporter for openDemocracy”.
Labour shadow Cabinet Office minister Helen Hayes described the unit's existence as "extremely troubling", telling the website: "If the cabinet office is interfering in FOI requests and seeking to work around the requirements of the Act by blacklisting journalists, it is a grave threat to our values and transparency in our democracy.”
Michelle Stanistreet, general secretary of the National Union of Journalists, described the unit as "positive Orwellian" and said it "poses serious questions about the government's approach to access to information".
Since 2010 government has repeatedly threatened to water down the FOI act, but the unit’s operations effectively mean its wings have been clipped without legislation or parliamentary scrutiny.
A government spokesperson said: "The Cabinet Office plays an important role through the FOI Clearing House of ensuring there is a standard approach across government in the way we consider and respond to requests.
“With increasing transparency, we receive increasingly more complex requests under Freedom of Information. We must balance the public need to make information available with our duty to protect sensitive information and ensure national security."
Asked about the issue at a regular briefing of Westminster journalists, the prime minister's official spokesperson said: “The FOI clearing house has been operating as part of the Cabinet Office in terms of the Freedom of Information Act since 2005, so it is nothing new. Its role is to act as an advice centre to ensure consistency across government in the way we deal with FOI requests.
Asked if requests from journalists were being flagged up, the spokesman replied: “The system is applicant-blind. The processing of FOIs is fully compliant with all data protection rules.”