Dear Cabinet Office,
I feel there's a definite public interest justification for requesting the following information:
1. Over the last 3 years what's been the cost to the Cabinet Office/Clearing House unit of the GLD fees for advice/representation in defence of the Cabinet Office's 'obstruction, evasion and prevarication' related to FOI Requests? The Cabinet Office was found guilty by Judge Hughes in June 2021, and fined £500,000.
Have there been further GLD fees for the Cabinet Office since the judge's ruling - if so what is the cost so far?
I am sure the ICO, and David Davis, MP, who were highly critical of the CO and their Clearing House unit's activities' would agree, the public have a right to expect the cost of CO recruitment of GLD legal assistance to be made known, since ultimately they are the ones paying the bill.
I have previously submitted a FOI Request for this information along with requests for other information. My request was rejected on the basis that it was, in your view 'vexatious'.
Whilst, arguably, that might have been true of the other information requested, I'm sure the ICO and David Davis would not regard the simple question above as being 'vexatious'. I think they'd see it as fully justified.
Our ref: FOI2022/08338
Dear Dudley Jones,
Thank you for your request for information which was received on 11th May.
Your request is being handled under the terms of the Freedom of
Information Act 2000 ('the Act').
The Act requires that a response must be given promptly, and in any event
within 20 working days. We will therefore aim to reply at the latest by
Please remember to quote the reference number above in any future
Freedom of Information Team
Dear Dudley Jones,
Please find attached our response to your recent Freedom of Information
request (reference FOI2022/08338).
Freedom of Information Team
Dear Cabinet Office,
Please pass this on to the person who conducts Freedom of Information reviews.
I am writing to request an internal review of Cabinet Office's handling of my FOI request 'GLD fees for the legal defence of the CO's Clearing House activities culminating in Judge Hughes guilty verdict and fine.'
First, however, I want to apologise for a mistake I made in making my original FOI request. I was confused and conflated 2 separate cases in which the CO was heavily criticised.
The first case did involve Judge Hughes and concerned the clandestine activities of the Cabinet Office’s Clearing House Unit. This was the case I mainly had in mind.
I have now discovered a report on the Open Democracy website that seems to confirm most of the accusations I made in my FOI Request, accusations you argued bore no relation to the truth. I’ll come on to the 2nd case which did see the CO fined £500,000 for a breach of people’s Data Privacy rights, shortly.
Conflating the two cases was a genuine mistake, and – if it caused anyone any distress (as it seems to have done)– I am truly sorry. However, I wish to emphasise that was never my intention, I merely wish to ascertain the amount of money that has been spent by the Cabinet Office on their defence.
I was puzzled by your insistence that there had been no criticism of the CO’s Clearing House unit’s ‘obstruction, evasion, and prevarication’. Surely you are aware that when Open Democracy first requested in 2018 that the Cabinet Office release information about the Clearing House, it declined, claiming exemptions and that it would not be in the public interest. When the information commissioner backed openDemocracy, the government appealed.
In a written judgment, made public on Tuesday, Judge Hughes backed the information commissioner, concluding that there was a “profound lack of transparency about the operation” that “might appear … to extend to ministers”.
Hughes also said there was a “lacuna in public information” about how the Cabinet Office ensured transparency and that the tribunal had been misled by the department, led by Michael Gove.
Julian Richards, the openDemocracy editor-in-chief, said: “This tribunal ruling completely vindicates openDemocracy’s journalism, which has shown how freedom of information is being undermined at the very heart of government. There is a toxic culture of secrecy and evasion that has to stop.
“We should not have had to go all the way to a tribunal to force the Cabinet Office to comply with basic transparency requirements.”
Hughes said the Cabinet Office had offered an out-of-date Wikipedia entry as evidence that information about the Clearing House was available to the public. Until the public disclosure of information on 18 March 2021, the only information on Gov.uk had been archived eight years ago, he noted.
Last year, openDemocracy revealed how the Clearing House had advised that the release of documents related to the contaminated NHS blood scandal needed to be “managed”, saying former ministers would be “very sore” about the disclosure of information about their time in office.
In February, editors of six UK national newspapers, including the Guardian and the Telegraph, signed an open letter requesting an urgent investigation into the FoI Act amid fears that the public are being stonewalled.
The shadow Cabinet Office minister Angela Rayner, described the judgement as “damning” and said it was part of a wider attempt by ministers “to undermine accountability and transparency”. The Conservative MP David Davis said the government had “withheld important information about government activity from the public domain”.
You contested my reference to ‘evasion’. And yet Julian Richards above identifies ‘a toxic culture of secrecy and evasion that has to stop’. Would you now accept my reference to ‘evasion’ was justified? And I’m sure I have read about ‘obstruction’ (indeed the respected commentators above have commented on ‘obstruction’ even if they haven’t used that word. And are you publicly prepared to say press articles or Open Democracy articles have never referred to ‘prevarication’?
The point I want to emphasise, however, is that you have spent an awful lot of the tax payers’ money on defending behaviour that has ultimately been robustly criticised by tribunals, or judges, or the ICO. I assume you would not deny this?
In fact, because your response prompted me to do a lot more research, I have read recently that the CO spent in the region of £40,000 on its defence of their position that there was nothing improper about their Clearing House activities.
Can you confirm that this figure is correct? That was the point of my FOI Request. Or does it represent a sum that is totally at variance with the cost of recruiting GLD lawyers (I assume your legal team was composed of GLD lawyers?)
Turning to the other case that I confused with the Clearing House one (in terms of the fine of £500,000): this concerned a Data Privacy breach by the CO. This was for a New Year honours list data breach.
I was wrong to use the term ‘guilty’ though it was not my intention to use it in a legal sense. I was using as a layman might use the term (e.g. I was guilty of forgetting my wife’s birthday).
I accept this breach was a accidental mistake on your part due to a software malfunction (I hope I’ve got that right). It’s just a pity the ICO took such a harsh, unsympathetic view of your IT problem:
“The Cabinet Office’s complacency and failure to mitigate the risk of a data breach meant that hundreds of people were potentially exposed to the risk of identity fraud and threats to their personal safety,” said the ICO’s director of investigations, Steve Eckersley.
I have always thought the ‘public interest’ issue over-rode any exemption clauses. I assume you would not deny there is a very real public interest issue here? If you were spending a lot of public money on defending cases where you knew what you were doing was ‘wrong’ – and Judge Hughes, David Davis, and the ICO seemed in little doubt you must have known what you were doing was wrong, and that you were avoiding ‘transparency, then I think the public has a right to know the cost details of this.
The second case cost was a fine of £500,000 (we don’t have to use the word ‘guilty’ which causes you such offence). I assume there were no legal fees because this was a computer error, but perhaps you could confirm that?
As far as the cost of legal fees involved in the first case, it would appear all you need to do is confirm the estimate of approximately £40,000 cited by Open Democracy.
I would hope the official who conducts the internal review would agree that the ‘public interest’ issue should over-ride exemption clauses, and accept my apology for confusing and conflating the 2 cases. I repeat my intention was not to cause distress, and – as for the ‘vexatious’ argument my criticism of ‘evasion’ etc was a criticism made by a number of people including a judge, the ICO, politicians, and highly respected Guardian journalists, not to mention Open Democracy and their legal team (Leigh Day).
'Vexatious' seems to me an intrinsically subjective term. What's 'vexatious' to one person, might be fair criticism to another. I feel I had to establish a case for the CO spending a lot of money on defending a case where they knew they had not behaved properly. I hope you will agree that is indisputable - given what happened. Thus I would urge you to provide the information I requested - which has now been made much easier for you.
A full history of my FOI request and all correspondence is available on the Internet at this address: https://www.whatdotheyknow.com/request/g...
Dear Cabinet Office,
I submitted this request for an internal review on the 18 July 2022. I believe you should by now have responded to this request. Could you please do so as a matter of urgency.
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