Sandwell still waits for outcome of BSF hearing

The outcome of a tribunal hearing into the release of private government documents on the cancellation of Building Schools for the Future (BSF) funding in Sandwell is still not known, nine weeks after the hearing.

Sandwell Council placed a freedom of information (FOI) request in 2011 asking for the disclosure of interdepartmental emails and any references to Sandwell on the cancellation of the BSF scheme.

About 700 projects were affected when former education secretary Michael Gove cut the £55 billion scheme in July 2010.

Sandwell council, with five other local authorities, launched a judicial review in the High Court in 2011 and won a review of the decision to scrap the funding.

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 about why the funding was refused, asking to see reports, minutes of meetings, discussions, notes, emails and other relevant documents.

The request was made as a result of allegations that Mr Gove and his advisers conducted government business on private emails.

However, the Department for Education (DfE) refused to share the documents as messages conducting government business did not fall within FOI law.

The Information Commissioner’s Office upheld Sandwell’s request earlier this year and told the DfE to disclose the documents. The DfE appealed and took the council to a first-tier tribunal.

The hearing was held on September 16.

Darren Cooper, leader of Sandwell Council, said: “We have not yet received the tribunal decision. If the tribunal finds in the favour of the Information Commissioner, Sandwell would expect the DfE to immediately release further information on the decision-making process as to why funding for Sandwell BSF was stopped.

“We will then review documentation and, if deemed appropriate, take further advice.”

Freedom of Information expert Jon Baines said most first-tier tribunal decisions were released within one to five weeks of the hearing.

“This case (Sandwell) is longer than normal but there is no set time limit for judgments to be-handed down — I think the requirement would be ‘as soon as reasonably practicable’.

“There are many reasons why a judgment takes longer to hand down . . . but the most obvious one is complexity.

“The Sandwell BSF case involved four different FOI exemptions. If there were, perhaps, witnesses with cross-examination this would add to the mix. And if there was a novel point of law then the tribunal is going to want to give it close consideration.”

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