8 June 2021: Open democracy: Judge slams Michael Gove’s office as open Democracy wins transparency court case
Exclusive: UK government accused of ‘profound lack of transparency’ as openDemocracy wins legal victory over ‘Orwellian’ Freedom of Information unit
openDemocracy has won a significant legal victory against the UK government. The judgement forces transparency on a secretive unit accused of ‘blacklisting’ Freedom of Information requests from journalists, campaigners and others.
After a three-year battle, judge Chris Hughes found that the documents the Cabinet Office presented in court about the controversial Clearing House unit were ‘misleading’. He added that there is a “profound lack of transparency about the operation”, which might “extend to ministers”.
Finding in openDemocracy’s favour, Hughes also criticised the Cabinet Office for a “lacuna in public information” about how the Clearing House coordinates Freedom of Information (FOI) requests referred to it by government departments and agencies.
The Cabinet Office had offered an out-of-date Wikipedia entry as evidence that information about the Clearing House, which circulates lists of journalists across Whitehall, was available to the public.
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The ruling came in an information tribunal case taken by openDemocracy, with public interest law firm Leigh Day, in a bid to bring transparency to the Cabinet Office Clearing House. The case was heard in April but the judgement was published only late last month.
openDemocracy had previously revealed that the Clearing House has blocked the release of politically sensitive information, in one instance comparing the handling of an FOI request to the Chilcot Inquiry into the Iraq war.
Cabinet minister Michael Gove had previously called openDemocracy’s journalism “ridiculous and tendentious” but his department has now been ordered to release further details of how the Clearing House blocked FOI requests.
September 2020: 1) ‘No-Deportations’ made an FOI request, 23 April: ’Number of people forcibly removed from the UK on Charter Flights (Escorts and Removals) Q1 January/February/March 2020’: Immigration Enforcement replied: Thank you for your Email of 23 April, in which you ask for information about Charter Flights in 2020. The information which you have requested is being considered under the exemption in section 31 of the FOIA, which relates to law enforcement. This is a qualified exemption, and to consider the public interest test fully we need to extend the 20-working day response period. We now aim to let you have a full response by Monday 22 June.
2) 23rd June, sent a follow-up Email: your reply to my Freedom of Information request – 58551.
No response has been received as of the close of business, yesterday, 23 June. Would appreciate it if you could get back to me today with the information requested.
3) They sent the following on 1 July: Dear John O, Re: Freedom of Information request – 58551, Thank you for your Email of 23 June, about your 23 April request for information about Home office charter flights during the first quarter of 2020. Your request is being handled as a request for information under the Freedom of Information Act 2000 (FOIA). I regret that we are unable to send you a full response to your request within 20 working days, as required by the FOIA. I would like to apologise on behalf of the Department for this delay, but I can assure you that we are dealing with your request and we will send you a full reply as soon as possible. Yours sincerely, Immigration Enforcement Secretariat
The above response was in complete breach or FOI guidelines.
4) The same day I complained to the Information Commissioner: They replied: 22 July 2020, Our reference: IC-45173-Z0V9. Dear Mr O, Thank you for your Email of 1 July 2020. Having searched all relevant systems, I cannot find details of your complaint. Can you please furnish me with some details on how the complaint was submitted. If this issue persists, I can set up the complaint in alternative fashion.
Yours sincerely, Jac Jones, Case Officer, Information Commissioner’s Office.
5) On the 12th August ICO informed me that they had now received my complaint and contacted the Home Office. Asking them to respond to my request within 20 days of 12 August.
6) The Home Office ignored the request from the ICO.
7) On the 14 September the ICO issued a formal decision notice, informing the Home Office, that they had failed to complete its deliberations on the balance of the public interest within a reasonable time and had therefore breached section 17(3) of the FOIA. Further: The Commissioner required the Home Office to take the following step to ensure compliance with the legislation. • Having confirmed that information is held within the scope of the request: either disclose the requested information or issue a refusal notice in accordance with the requirements of section 17 of the FOIA. The Home Office must take this step within 35 calendar days of the date of this decision notice. Failure to comply may result in the Commissioner making written certification of this fact to the High Court pursuant to section 54 of the Act and may be dealt with as a contempt of court.
8) On the same day, the Home Office complied with the ICO decision, disclosing to myself the information they held on deportation charter flights for Q1 January/February/March 2020.
Re: Freedom of Information Request – 58551
Charter Flights (Escorts and Removals) Q1 January/February/March 2020:
1. Number of males removed: 51
2. Number of females removed: 0
3. Number of escorts: 262
4. Number of flights in total: 5
5. Number flights to each country / number removed to each country
- France – 4
- Germany – 7
- Austria – 2
- Switzerland – 2
- Jamaica – 17
- Pakistan – 12
- Ghana – 3
- Nigeria – 4
*Please note that some flights went to more than one destination*
6. Number of children, if any: None.
Total cost of Home Office Charter Flights, Q1 January/February/March 2020
A. The total cost of Home Office charter flights for the period January/February/March 2020 was £1,406,033.23