Considered in Grand Committee
My Lords, perhaps I may say to my noble friend Lady Harris what a pleasure it is to make my debut ministerial statutory instrument speech in the Moses Room under her chairmanship.
The purpose of these regulations is to allow academies more time to respond to freedom of information requests to take account of school closures, for example during school holidays.
The Freedom of Information Act gives any person the legal right to request access to recorded information held by a public authority. The Act applies to over 100,000 public authorities, and last year central government-monitored bodies received more than 40,000 requests, which is a 16 per cent increase on the number received the year before. Under the Act, freedom of information requests must be responded to promptly, normally within 20 working days. It is right that people making requests should receive a timely response.
However, there are limited occasions when the deadline is impractical. That is why regulations have previously been made in 2004 and 2009 to provide maintained schools in England and Wales, and schools and pupil referral units in Northern Ireland, with an extension to the usual 20 working-day time limit in dealing with FOI requests in certain circumstances.
Other organisations that have been provided with an extended time limit to respond to requests for information include: archives, to deal with requests for information contained in a public record that has been transferred from a closed file, because one of the freedom of information exemptions applies; operations of the Armed Forces requests, where information needs to be obtained from front-line units of the Armed Forces and they cannot be reached for operational reasons; and requests involving information that is held outside the UK and will take time to retrieve.
The Academies Act 2010 extended the Freedom of Information Act to proprietors of academies. Like other schools, academies can also face difficulties in answering requests received during periods of closure and other times when they are unstaffed. This is a particular problem during school holidays, which can be around six weeks long and therefore longer than the 20 working days normally permitted for a response.
Without this extension in place, academies may find themselves in a position whereby they will unavoidably be unable to comply with the time limits provided for under the Act, and I am sure that noble Lords will agree with me that this is neither fair nor sensible. These regulations will ensure that proprietors of academies have the same reasonable allowance in respect of the time limit for responding to requests as other schools in England, Wales and Northern Ireland that are subject to the FOI Act.
If the regulations are made, proprietors of academies would not have to count any day that is not a school day, such as during the school holidays, towards the period of 20 working days within which requests must be answered. However, under the regulations, requests must be answered within a maximum of 60 working days, including any period of closure.
However, these regulations do not mean that academies can delay responding to requests. They will be required to answer requests promptly. Where it is possible for an academy to respond earlier to a request, the response cannot be delayed until the end of the extended time limit. I beg to move.
My Lords, the Minister said that academies cannot delay; I wish to argue that they can delay, and I will set out the circumstances in which they can and which cause me concern about these regulations.
I am a regular user of the freedom of information legislation that applies to all public bodies—I have a number of applications outstanding with both government departments and local authorities at the moment—and I ask the Committee to recognise that while academies fulfil the same function as maintained schools in the state sector, they are different in that they comprise a greater element of independence, and it is that independence and the influence of that independence on the management of such schools that worries me.
Under existing legislation, educational institutions can be quite tardy in dealing with freedom of information applications. Unlike government departments and local authorities, whom I find fairly reliable, educational institutions can often be difficult. The problem with these regulations is that they are not accompanied by safeguards. In my view, this will lead to an abuse of the system. If evidence of abuse is needed, we need do no more than consider the report of the Campaign for Freedom of Information, which, when reporting on delays by the Information Commissioner in completing investigations, found that the completion of 46 per cent of the cases it handled were delayed by one or two years, 25 per cent by between two and three years, and 5 per cent by more than three years. When it wrote its report, one case showed a delay of three years 9 months after the Information Commissioner had dealt with the report. I understand that efforts are being made by the Information Commissioner to tighten up on these delays, but what we are doing today may hinder applications unless proper safeguards are introduced.
Let me give an example of what happens when educational institutions decide they want to delay and deny the public information they should have in the public interest. A maintained school within the United Kingdom, which could easily become an academy, decided upon a course of action which we will describe for the purposes of the debate as its project. The project was opposed by a number of expert organisations, one of which took the school to court, and huge legal fees were paid to fund the case of the expert objector. An MP took an interest in the case in the other House, advised against the action and used freedom of information legislation to unravel the affair. On 20 February 2008, the MP wrote to the school to establish the cost to the school of defending its action in proceeding with the project, the source of the funding, the role of the local authority, what legal advice had been given to the school, and the role played by the head and the governing body.
We should remember that these regulations will extend the period that schools have to reply to questions under freedom of information legislation. The school replied and refused to provide the information. On 15 March 2008, the MP applied under freedom of information legislation; the school still refused. On 15 May, the MP wrote to the school asking for an internal review of the decision to refuse to comply. There was no reply from the school. On 29 July 2008, the MP approached the Information Commissioner. On 11 September 2008, 44 days later, the Information Commissioner replied, saying that he had asked the school to issue a review within 20 days. On 23 October, a further 42 days later and eight months after the original request, the school revealed that it had spent £76,000 on legal costs to that date. The school carried on refusing to answer the other questions. Perhaps now the relevance of the 60 days may be dawning on Members of the Committee.
In March 2009, the MP made a fresh application, asking further questions under FOI. The school again refused to respond. On 16 April 2009, the MP wrote again to the school under FOI; the school later claimed that it had lost the letter. The MP sent a copy of the letter to the school; the school replied but again failed to answer the questions. In May 2009, the MP wrote to the school offering to extend the deadline by 20 days. On 27 May 2009, the school replied with evasive answers. On 9 June 2009, the MP wrote to the school, asking for an internal review of the decision to refuse to comply. On 6 July 2009, the school replied with evasive answers, hiding behind spurious exemptions.
On 15 July 2009, the MP wrote to the Information Commissioner to complain about the refusal to answer questions. Three months later, on 8 October 2009—one and a half years after the original application and three months after the complaint to the commissioner—the school wrote to reveal that £170,000 had been spent on legal costs. The school still refused to answer the other questions. The Information Commissioner then gave the school until 4 November to answer questions. On 23 November, the Information Commissioner stated: “Unfortunately, the authority”—that is, the school—
“initially struggled to understand the role of the Information Commissioner’s Office … as regulator of the Freedom of Information Act 2000 … I am, however, pleased to confirm that it now has a full understanding of our role and is working towards providing a full response by the 7th December 2009”.
A month later the Information Commissioner made a further statement, saying that,
“it appears that the authority still does not fully understand the role of the ICO. The Commissioner has today therefore issued an Information Notice to the Authority … compelling a Public Authority to provide the Commissioner with a copy of the disputed … information. The Authority has 30 days … from the date of the Notice to comply. Failure to comply may result in the commissioner making written certification of this fact to the High Court … I do however hope that that will not prove necessary”.
That was nearly 11 months ago.
In May 2010, the Information Commissioner revealed that a freedom of information notice to the school, dated 17 December 2009, had to be cancelled on legal advice because it had been addressed to the school, as against the governing body of the school. On 9 July 2010, the Information Commissioner wrote to the MP to state that the corrected information notice was being appealed by the school. In August 2010, the tribunal dismissed the appeal. The school then offered the Information Commissioner half-answers to the questions asked, which the Information Commissioner regarded as inadequate. The Information Commissioner then gave the school 14 days—as I understand it, to 21 October—to answer. So, it has taken two and a half years to get precisely nowhere on what I regard as perhaps the most significant piece of legislation of the Labour Government in the past 12 years. The school refused to answer the questions, making a mockery of the Act.
Today, we are considering giving institutions, which will be the subject of greater private sector influence, an additional 60 days without building into this new power for academies—at least, it is available in the maintained sector—any safeguards to prevent what I referred to happening again in the future. Although I am in favour of the 60-day period, I believe that the Government should now review this legislation with a view to reconsidering the powers available to the Information Commissioner for enforcement of the law. We cannot allow schools and other bodies to make a mockery of the legislation in the way that I have described.
My Lords, first, I congratulate the Minister on making his debut on statutory instruments. It is good to be working with him again. As he may recall, in the late 1970s when I was working in the Labour Party office in Cardiff and the Minister was in No. 10, we often had little chats about what the Prime Minister would be doing when he came to Wales. It is good to be working with him again, although I do not think that at the time either of us thought that we would be working on opposite sides of the Chamber.
I thank the noble Lord for his remarks and for his explanation of the statutory instrument. My noble friend Lord Campbell-Savours has raised some very interesting points, to which I am sure the Minister will reply. However, I believe that the safeguards are there in that academy proprietors remain subject to the obligation to respond promptly. If a request can be answered in less than the maximum period allowed, they must do so, and the SI can be reviewed by the Information Commissioner if there is a significant increase in the number of complaints from requesters.
With those assurances, I am happy to say that we agree that the statutory instrument is very sensible. It will make the workings of this section of the Act clear and understandable to all concerned. As it is so straightforward, we therefore have no objection to it.
Oh yes, I remember it well. It was a very happy period indeed and a clear demonstration that Governments can get through very difficult economic problems.
I am very grateful for the intervention of the noble Lord, Lord Campbell-Savours, which was made with his usual thoroughness. I am unable to comment on individual cases but I shall read very carefully the Hansard report of this debate and send it to the Information Commissioner. As one who was very much a supporter of the Freedom of Information Act, I want to see it work. I am therefore very grateful for the noble Lord’s contribution because it is important that the Information Commissioner has the capacity to enforce the power.
On the backlog, I saw the Information Commissioner recently and he was able to assure me that significant progress was being made. I think that there was a period when his office did not deal with matters quickly enough, but a real effort has been made to speed things up and I think that we are now well on track. In addition, in November and December the Department for Education and Skills is holding a training event for academy principals and chairs of governing bodies to acquaint them with their responsibilities under the Act. Written guidance on handling requests will also be provided to the academies. I am grateful for the support of the Opposition and for the contribution of the noble Lord, Lord Campbell-Savours.