Council wins Freedom of Information appeal

Published on 25th March 2014

Sandwell Council has hailed a landmark ruling ordering the government to fully explain why it axed a schools' modernisation programme.

The Information Commissioner has said it is in the public interest for details to be released about why Sandwell's £125m Building Schools for the Future (BSF) was ended.

The move comes almost 18 months after the council made a Freedom of Information request about why funding was refused for BSF, affecting nine schools due for rebuilds or revamps.

It asked to see information such as emails and notes and appealed after the government refused to comply with the request.

It complained to the Information Commissioner after the government turned down the appeal.

The commissioner had twice previously said the government was right to withhold information.

But now he has ruled the public interest outweighs the argument information held by a government department is exempt if it relates to the formulation or development of government policy.

Welcoming the decision, council leader Councillor Darren Cooper said: "This has been a long, hard road but I have never given up because BSF was a way for schools to improve and I genuinely want to know why it was axed.

"Was it something we did or didn't do? Can we avoid the same thing happening in the future? It was surely in the public interest to tell us but the government decided not to come clean.

"Now I urge it to respect this independent judgement and fully explain why it acted as it did."

The decision notice said the commissioner "recognises the considerable public debate which ensued from the ending of a major government programme in which substantial sums of public money had been invested in improving the nation's schools.

"In his view there is a powerful public interest in understanding the whole picture and in providing full transparency to the reasons which led to the decision to cancel the school improvement programme.

"The Commissioner considers that the public interest in disclosure outweighs the public interest in maintaining the exemption.

"Therefore the information should be disclosed."

Certain information between the DfE and its legal advisors can remain exempt, as can information relating to personal details such as birthday greetings in emails, the commissioner has ruled.

The government has 28 days to appeal the decision.