Is DfE abusing FoI law to avoid publishing sensitive info?
Freedom of Information law allows government organisations to refuse disclosure of requested data under certain conditions. One reason is a declared intention to publish the information in the future. That’s laid down under Section 22 of the FoI Act.
Section 22 is a ‘qualified exemption’: there must be a general public interest in publishing the requested information. But, as this FoI response* dated 26 October 2016 makes clear: the government can choose to publish the requested information ‘in a manner and at a time of its own choosing’.
That was nine months ago and the information – Application forms for approved free schools in Waves 9, 10 and 11 – are still not on gov.uk website. The DfE said publication was being delayed ‘because the department are currently redacting and quality assuring this process’.
The redaction refers to personal data mainly relating to directors of the trust proposing the free school. It’s unclear why these need redacting as they are available from Companies House. However, the DfE blanked out such names in forms already released. It’s also unclear why redaction is taking the DfE such a long time.
It’s not the first time the DfE has used intention to publish as a way of delaying publication. My request for the cost of transferring academies which changed hands up to 31 August 2015 was refused in February 2016 on grounds of cost. Presumably if I’d stumped up £600 the information would have been provided. My money would have bought ‘one person spending 3½ working days locating, retrieving and extracting the information’
As keen as I am to find out how much it costs to move academies from one trust to another, I declined to pay. In any case, the DfE told me they were going to publish data about academy transfer costs in the future.
The data still hadn’t been published a year later. That’s despite the DfE saying it would take just one civil servant working for 3½ days collating the info. I began to suspect the DfE was stonewalling. This appeared to be confirmed when Schools Week received evidence showing the DfE was trying to hide news about the cost of academy transfers.
The number of transferred academies continues to rise while costs remain hidden. For example, 120 academies transferred between academy trusts in eight months from 1 May 2016. This compares with 23 transferred in thirteen months from 1 September 2013.
The Court eventually forced the DfE to publish the cost of transferring these 23 academies. But it has published no more data telling taxpayers how much transferring academies cost.
It is unacceptable for the DfE to prolong publication by claiming it will be published in the future. There is unfortunately no time limit so publication could be delayed indefinitely. This is the opposite of the DfE’s declared intention ‘for there to be open and transparent government’.
*Thanks to agov, a regular commentator on this site, for finding the FoI request for application forms for free schools approved in Waves 9, 10 and 11 on WhatDoTheyKnow.com