Department for Education to face special FOI measures

Martin Rosenbaum
Freedom of information specialist

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In September the Department for Education abandoned the controversial legal case it had been fighting to try to establish that emails sent by ministers on personal email accounts were not covered by the Freedom of Information Act.

This position was in defiance of the clear stance adopted by the Information Commissioner Christopher Graham, who had already ruled that all emails sent on government business could fall under FOI, whether an official or private account was used.

The Department's arguments had been widely derided by those with knowledge of information law, and presumably it dropped its appeal after realising that it was hopeless to pursue this long-standing dispute any further.

The DfE's difficulties with implementing the FOI Act were re-emphasized last week, when the latest statistics on the performance of government departments were released.

In the latest quarter it had the worst record out of all departments in England for responding to FOI requests within the legal time limit, managing this in only 74% of cases. Some other departments such as Health had a 100% score.

So it's not surprising that the Department for Education has today been put under special monitoring by the Information Commissioner's Office because of its inadequate record on FOI. This is a bit like the ICO's equivalent of schools being placed in special measures following a critical inspection by Ofsted. The ICO increases its checks on poorly performing authorities until it is satisfied that their procedures have improved.

Three other public authorities have also been targeted today by the ICO for close monitoring due to their unsatisfactory handling of FOI applications. They are the Department of Work and Pensions (DWP), the Office of the First Minister and Deputy First Minister in Northern Ireland (OFMDPM), and Wirral Metropolitan Borough Council.

The DWP was another department which ranked badly in the latest central government statistics, only meeting the legal deadline for 83% of requests.

The OFMDPM has also suffered a recent reversal in a high-profile FOI legal battle, eventually being forced to disclose details behind the decision to exempt Roman Catholic schools in Northern Ireland from fair employment legislation.

The Office has been severely criticised for its recent performance on FOI.

The DfE, DWP and Wirral Council have been subject to special monitoring from the ICO in the past.

The Information Commissioner Chris Graham says: "It is particularly disappointing to see that the advances previously made by the Department for Education, the Department for Work and Pensions, and Wirral Metropolitan Borough Council - which were introduced following concerns after previous rounds of monitoring - have not been continued.

"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."