LEGAL action is being taken against the UK Government after it was found to be funnelling Freedom of Information (FOI) requests through a secretive “Clearing House” unit in Michael Gove’s office.

The system, which has been branded “Orwellian”, sees FOI requests from various Whitehall departments sent to Gove’s office for approval before release, centralising control over what information the public are allowed to see.

The unit also reportedly shares information on the journalists making FOI requests and gives advice to other departments "to protect sensitive information". This amounts to “blacklisting”, according to one shadow minister.

It's understood journalists from the Daily Mirror, the Guardian, The Times, and the BBC, and researchers from charities and campaign groups are on the alleged “black lists”.

Conservative MP David Davis called on government ministers to “explain to the House of Commons precisely why they continue” with a Clearing House operation that is “certainly against the spirit of that [FOI] act – and probably the letter, too”.

The FOI Act was introduced in order to combat a culture of secrecy at Whitehall. It allows any member of the public, from anywhere in the world, to request information not available elsewhere from UK public bodies.

The law should be upheld “applicant and motive blind”, according to a 2007 Information Tribunal.

The tribunal stated: “A disclosure under FOIA is a disclosure to the public. In dealing with a Freedom of Information request there is no provision for the public authority to look at from whom the application has come, the merits of the application or the purpose for which it is to be used.”

Gove’s Cabinet Office have been accused of acting in direct contravention of these rules, centrally deciding who can and cannot be afforded information.

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OpenDemocracy, the news site which broke the story, is now working with Leigh Day on a legal bid to force the Cabinet Office to reveal how this “Clearing House” unit operates.

Michelle Stanistreet, NUJ general secretary, said: "The existence of this clearing house in the Cabinet Office is positively Orwellian.

“It poses serious questions about the government's approach to access to information, its attitude to the public's right to know and the collation of journalists’ personal information."

Labour shadow Cabinet Office minister Helen Hayes told openDemocracy: “This is extremely troubling. 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.”

The revelations are one of many in a new report, published by openDemocracy, and called “Art of Darkness: How the Government is Undermining Freedom of Information”.

The report found a long term trend towards greater secrecy at the highest levels of government “led by the largest and most powerful Whitehall departments”.

It found that the Cabinet Office, Treasury, Foreign Office and Home Office had all rejected more requests than they had granted over the past five years.

Of the requests which were appealed to the Information Commissioner, 48% were found to have basic procedural errors. This, the report says, points to a decline in the “fundamental understanding of or respect for the legislation”.

The report also finds several key government bodies have been “stonewalling” requests. By not responding at all, the requester is put into “legal limbo” as they cannot appeal without a firm rejection. On average, going around this “stonewall” takes more than six months.

The full Art of Darkness report can be read here.