The Department for Education (DfE) has been put into “special measures” by the Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) over its record in dealing with Freedom of Information requests.
The latest statistics on the performance of government departments revealed that, in the last quarter, the DfE had the worst record out of all departments in England for responding to Freedom of Information (FOI) requests within the legal time limit – doing so in fewer than three-quarters of cases (74 per cent).
Other departments, including health, had a 100 per cent score. As a result, the DfE has been put under special monitoring by the ICO, which will now increase its checks on the department until it is satisfied that its procedures have improved.
The move has been welcomed by campaigners frustrated at the lack of transparency involved in policies such as the approval of free schools. In many instances, FOI requests have been delayed and then refused on the grounds that disclosure would not be in the public interest or that the timing did not suit the DfE’s agenda.
Emma Bishton, a member of the COMPASS (Community and Parents Actively Supporting Our Schools) group, which has campaigned against free schools in Suffolk attempted to gain information about free school bidders from the DfE using FOI requests, with no success.
She said: “From our perspective, the DfE has appeared to operate a closed-door policy in relation to requests for information which concern the use of public funds to provide public services, providing scant information and often as late as possible.
“I’m very pleased to see that the ICO is now taking the DfE to task on this issue and I hope it leads to a more transparent approach to the free school, and other, processes.”
Another campaigner, Stephen Mayo, who blogs as Educating Brentwood, was unable to check claims made by Becket Key Free School about its pre-opening report. The DfE’s reply to the FOI request was that these could not be released as they “could lead to inaccurate assessments being made about the readiness of free schools to open on time”.
Mr Mayo said: “Only last month, our request to receive a copy of the new school’s funding agreement was also refused because, while it will one day be released, the DfE will only do so ‘in a manner and at a time of its own choosing’. There is absolutely no indication of when this will be.
"Meanwhile the school and its private sponsors can continue to make claims about their funding and future facilities without anyone being able to check their veracity.
"Following our experience locally, the ICO should not only be looking at the time it takes to respond to FOI requests, but also the content of the replies."
Last year, the DfE abandoned its controversial legal case to prove that emails sent by ministers on personal email accounts were not covered by the Freedom of Information Act – a position that was in defiance of a rule earlier given by Christopher Graham, the Information Commissioner.
He said that all emails sent on government business could fall under FOI, whether an official or private account was used. Fiona Millar, of the Local Schools Network, said: “It is obviously very embarrassing for the DfE to be put under the ICO’s equivalent of special measures but perhaps more important is what was in those emails. We hope that Michael Gove will now make the content public so we can all see what it is that he has gone to such great lengths to try and hide.”
The DfE was one of four public authorities targeted by the ICO. The others are the Department of Work and Pensions, the Office of the First Minister and Deputy First Minister in Northern Ireland, and Wirral Metropolitan Borough Council.
Mr Graham said: “We will monitor the authorities for three months, and may take further action if we don’t see the necessary improvements in each authority’s standard of compliance.
“This is not good enough and we expect these authorities to take the necessary measures to ensure that they are meeting their obligations under the Freedom of Information Act. We will provide support and advice where we can, but reserve the right to take further action if they fail to step up to the mark.”
A Department for Education spokesperson said: “We take our obligations under the Freedom of Information Act very seriously and make every effort to respond within the 20 working day deadline.
“The number of requests for information received by the department has more than doubled in the space of three years. However, we are clear that delays are unacceptable and are co-operating fully with the Information Commissioner’s Office to improve our performance.”