Gove has been pulled up by the Commons authorities (again)

June 22, 2012 2:15 pm

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.

  • aracataca

    Even Alan Giles thinks Michael Gove is less than perfect.

    • AlanGiles

      “Less than perfect”?. The man is a total menace, allowing his personal dogma to take precedence over what is best for school students, in the same way Lansley has with his brief. All you can say for Gove is that his “reforms” are luckily not going to kill anybody, in the way Lansley’s and Duncan-Smith’s well might

      I have to say he doesn’t remind me of Aleksandr Orlov (or Sergei), but more of Kenneth Williams doing his pompous Doctor act in a Carry On film:

      http://www.rexfeatures.com/live/z132690526/co_doctor?cr=2

  • aracataca

    On a slightly more serious note. Shouldn’t we really be policy focused rather than focused on attacking individual Tory politicians? This approach is unlikely to garner significant numbers of votes for us. It’s also what (IMHO) Tories do. They profess a view  that kind of sees ‘great’ men and women as the drivers of history rather than groups,classes and movements of masses of people. In terms of attacks on personality however we need to be mindful that shed loads of these are going to be levelled at EM in the run up to the 2015 election. However, we should dip out of that particular tactic ourselves. 

  • Thomas Baxter

    M Gove reminds me of Alexander Orlov (but crossed with a crossed weasel-stoat) – comparethemeercat.com!

  • Daniel Speight

    It seems that Gove would rather hide his relationship with Rachel Wolf and with the Department of  Education money she received after he was made minister. Of course it helps when the fearless Guido who usually exposes the foibles of our political class, has a soft spot for Michael. I wonder what that’s all about?

  • Dave Postles

    ‘Blue-sky thinking’ – that’s a laugh.  He’s a journalist whose only experience of education is his own and on that alone does he seem to base his ‘policy’ – or rather, fetish.  I suspect that he is an android, since he seems to have little empathy with young people who will be expected to take a single examination for multiple years of leaning, when they might be young women experiencing menstrual periods, young people with violent hay fever but afraid to risk the drowsiness of medication, or young people who have just experienced a family illness or bereavement.  His ideas are antediluvian. 

    • Dave Postles

       make that ‘learning’.

    • jaime taurosangastre candelas

      Dave, I don’t understand that you (as I understand it) come from a very challenged background in the Midlands, and manage to succeed in academia, and yet don’t acknowledge that there is a huge disparity between care and concern for students, and the fact that once they leave education, they are thrown onto the furnace of real life?  There seems to be no intermediate stage, no point at which they are left – in the shallow end, because we are not cruel – to learn to sink or swim.

      The hypothetical young lady who may suffer menstrual cramps on the day of an exam – whom you would give a second chance to – 28 days later is facing an interview for a job, in which she will be instantly judged by her confidence as she walks into the room, and yet again she has her period.  Life is like that.

      Where is the balance, the sense of preparing our children for what is a harsh and judgemental world?  This should be part of education in both the family and also in school.  No political philosophy can undo the reality.

      I don’t want to come across as too Spartan, but the balance you advocate appears to me to be fully over at the soft end of the spectrum.

    • jaime taurosangastre candelas

      Dave, I don’t understand that you (as I understand it) come from a very challenged background in the Midlands, and manage to succeed in academia, and yet don’t acknowledge that there is a huge disparity between care and concern for students, and the fact that once they leave education, they are thrown onto the furnace of real life?  There seems to be no intermediate stage, no point at which they are left – in the shallow end, because we are not cruel – to learn to sink or swim.

      The hypothetical young lady who may suffer menstrual cramps on the day of an exam – whom you would give a second chance to – 28 days later is facing an interview for a job, in which she will be instantly judged by her confidence as she walks into the room, and yet again she has her period.  Life is like that.

      Where is the balance, the sense of preparing our children for what is a harsh and judgemental world?  This should be part of education in both the family and also in school.  No political philosophy can undo the reality.

      I don’t want to come across as too Spartan, but the balance you advocate appears to me to be fully over at the soft end of the spectrum.

  • AnotherOldBoy

    Mr Gove is doing a splendid job.  More power to his elbow.

    I haven’t the faintest idea what Ms Nandy MP is going on about (not least because the headline doesn’t seem to relate to the article), but no doubt it makes some sort of sense to Guardian readers.

    Meanwhile Mr Gove is sorting out the mess that is (or, increasingly, was!) our education system.

    Let’s end low expectations, fadist approaches and Luddism and give every child a great education!

    • Dave Postles

       ‘More power to his elbow.’
      Yes, I think that’s where his brain is.

      • AnotherOldBoy

        How very witty.

    • AlanGiles

      The point is every child will not get a great education.

      If it is anything like the old system he loves so much the truth is those who pass the 11+ will get a better education than those who don’t.

      This is not sour grapes, but I was one of those who had a secondary modern education, and we went to a school that consisted of old teachers, who were jaded and just waiting for retirement, or young trainee teachers who tended to defer to the old timers, so you had creaky lessons from old men or creaky lessons from twentysomethings.

      This is God’s truth – our “careers officer”, who I recall was old Mr Tanner, who was also the maths and geography master, only gave us lads two career options: go to work at Fords or join the Army (to facilitate these two possibilites he arranged for an Army officer to visit the school one afternoon, and a trip to Fords on another.

      We were virtually written off, with the result that the lads who couldn’t be bothered, because the teachers decided they were second rate, either played truant or hung around bullying others.

      I learned a lot more AFTER I left school than I did while I was there (for example, our history teachers method was to write up on the blackboard, in exemplary copper-plate, an excerpt from a textbook and then tell just to write it into our exercise books – that was the extent of Mr Lindley’s “teaching”.

      Everything works out in the end, and perhaps despite, rather than because of my school, I self educated myself (the Third Programme and Home Service were my university) and I received thorough and practical training at a Technical College.

      University wouldn’t have suited me, not least because it would not have been financially possible, but I don’t like the idea of today and tomorrows youngsters being treated as second best the way we were.

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