When the Department for Education told me they would publish academy transfer fees sometime in the future, I did not expect to be still waiting for publication over a year later.
But the Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) tells me* the Freedom of Information Act (FoIA) doesn’t lay down a time scale by which promised information is published. This means the DfE can postpone publication of academy transfer fees indefinitely.
A Court Ruling at the end of 2015 ruled there was a public interest in the amount of money awarded to academy trusts when they took over other academies. This decision forced the DfE to reveal the costs of 23 academies which had changed hands in a particular timescale.
I submitted a further Freedom of Information request asking the DfE to reveal the costs of transferring 100+ academies which changed hands up to 31 August 2015. This was refused on grounds of cost. The decision was upheld by a DfE Internal Review which let me know there was an intention to publish the data in the future.
Since that time, March 2016, I have been stonewalled. I complained to my MP. He eventually received a reply from schools minister Lord Nash in January 2017: the DfE intended to publish the data and officials were working on collating it.
This was odd since I could have had the data up to 31 August 2015 in February 2016 if I had paid £600 to cover costs. The figures must have been easily available for the DfE to say it would release the data on payment of the required fee.
The ICO cannot take my complaint further because:
1 The initial refusal was based on cost. This is an exemption allowed under FoIA.
2 I didn’t complain in the timescale laid down by the ICO. (This was rather difficult as I had to wait until a delay had occurred before complaining about a delay.)
3 The ICO cannot make a formal decision about any delay because the FoIA doesn’t stipulate a deadline for promised publication.
It appears, then, that taxpayers will have to wait…and wait…and wait to discover how much academy transfers are costing. This is despite there being a public interest in disclosure.
If the DfE is being so reluctant to publish academy transfer costs, what are ministers trying to hide? What is it that ministers don’t want the public to know?
*phone call from ICO to author 13 December 2016 and confirmed in email from ICO to author dated 3 April 2017