Michael Gove has once again been pulled up by the House of Commons authorities for failing to answer questions about activities within his Department.
Last year, Greg Knight MP, Chair of the House of Commons Procedures Committee reprimanded the Secretary of State for his failure to provide answers about his Department’s dealings with the New Schools Network. Questions had been raised about how half a million pounds came to be awarded to a new organisation, led by Gove’s former adviser, with no tendering process, and sparked further allegations about the politicisation of the civil service. The discussions in question took place over email, and leaked emails appeared to show that advisers were using private email address to avoid FOI requirements.
Since then, Gove has faced criticism about the widespread use of private emails within the Department for Education.
Ministers and officials have repeatedly denied requests for information, conducted through private email accounts, relating to discussions with the New Schools Network, the cancelled Building Schools for the Future programme and information held on the ‘Mrs Blurt’ account, set up in Gove’s wife’s name to communicate with his advisors and civil servants.
Earlier this year the Information Commissioner ordered Gove to release this information. Gove has appealed this decision and we await the findings of an Information Tribunal.
In the meantime I have continued to seek answers about the information held in these accounts and about the mysterious Cabinet Office guidance that was supposedly provided to the DfE late last year, stating that private email accounts were exempt from FOI. It seems nobody can tell me when this guidance was issued, by who and even whether it was written down.
Attempts to discover just what is going on within the Department for Education appear increasingly futile for two reasons.
Firstly, Ministers, advisers and officials were allegedly using private emails to evade public scrutiny and have known that there is a possibility they may have to release the contents of these emails since they were first leaked back in September 2011. There have been no measures put in place to ensure the emails have not been deleted and several times in an appearance before the Education Select Committee Gove refused to confirm or deny whether he had deleted emails in order to avoid their release. Given that the Information Commissioner has the power to seize the department’s hard drives, this delay is serious.
Secondly, in parallel to the upcoming information tribunal, the Information Commissioner is investigating criminal allegations against the Department. It is a criminal offence, under the Freedom of Information Act, to delete or destroy information that has been asked for in an FOI request. The Information Commissioner appears to have evidence to suggest this has happened. However the law says prosecutions for this offence have to be brought within six months of the offence occurring – a time frame we have now surpassed in part because of delays by the DfE in providing information.
Greg Knight has written once again to Michael Gove demanding an explanation as to why his department failed to give an answer to my Parliamentary Question on the number of people contacting his Department using the ‘Mrs Blurt’ email account. By convention, Government departments should answer Parliamentary Questions within a working week. In this instance, the answer came four months later and was unsurprising: “The Department does not have any record of this information.”
Regardless of the outcome of the Information Tribunal, it is unlikely that the formal channels will provide the transparency required by law and promised by the Coalition. Gove has argued that there should be a private space where officials and politicians can discuss policy and conduct that fabled ‘blue-sky thinking’. He is right and there is a specific carve-out in the law for such conversations, relating to policy discussion. But clearly the Information Commissioner is of the opinion that the conversations contained in these emails relate to Government business and it is in the public interest that they should be released.
This sets a dangerous precedent for the effectiveness of the FOI Act and the necessity for transparency in an open and accountable democracy. The Justice Select Committee recently conducted post-legislative scrutiny of the FOI Act and it is vital that as a result of this, more powers and resources are given to the Information Commissioner in order to handle complaints, time frames are shortened for action and perhaps most importantly, this six-month time limit for bringing prosecutions is waived if the delay is caused by the party being investigated, or more time is needed. Without these changes, farcical situations like this will be repeated and confidence in the political system will be dangerously undermined.
Lisa Nandy is the Labour Mp for Wigan and a shadow education minister.