Sandwell council loses bid to see secret BSF documents

The Department for Education (DfE) has succeeded in preventing Sandwell Council from seeing information regarding the cancellation of Building Schools for the Future (BSF).

A much delayed verdict on a freedom of information request made by Sandwell Council in 2011 today upheld the DfE’s claim that releasing materials about BSF decisions would prejudice the effective conduct of government affairs.

Sandwell Council placed the request in 2011 after several of its planned school building projects were  scrapped when former education secretary Michael Gove cut the £55 billion BSF scheme in July 2010.

Along with five other authorities, Sandwell won a judicial review against the decision in High Court in 2011. However, Mr Gove said he would not reconsider the BSF projects because he could not compare the state of Sandwell’s schools with others across the country.

The council subsequently made a FOI request asking to see reports, minutes of meetings, discussions, notes, emails and other documents relevant to the decision.

After several rounds of appeal, the case was heard in a first tier tribunal in September 2014. The judgement has been in deliberation for 19 weeks.

The verdict says that judges were persuaded by witness testimony from senior civil servant, Andrew McCully, that releasing the documents could negatively impact advice given to Ministers in future.

It said:”We also consider that the detailed arguments that disclosure could inhibit the free and frank provision of advice and exchange of views between civil servants and ministers in the future, in the circumstances of this case, are strong. In other words we find that disclosure of the Disputed Information as a whole could have a chilling effect on the way government would be able to go about its business in the future.”

The judge did note that much of the information originally sought had been released during the course of the proceedings.

Council leader, Councillor Darren Cooper, said; “I am very surprised that the first tier tribunal decision has overturned the Information Commissioner’s decision.

“I am also very disappointed the DFE still chooses to withhold information of such public interest. It has taken around 17 weeks to get this reply, suggesting a lot of deliberation has gone on over it. We will be weighing up what further options are available to us and whether to appeal to the upper tier tribunal.”