26 October 2014

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Political editor wins battle to get FoI requests answered

A weekly newspaper journalist whose two Freedom of Information requests have remained unanswered for a year has won the backing of the Information Commissioner.

Paul Francis, political editor at the KM Group, submitted requests to two government departments around a year ago but has not received any formal response to one of them and has appealed for further details on another.

The FoI requests concerned one to the Department for Education about the Building Schools for the Future programme and details about Treasury meetings on proposals for an island airport in the Thames estuary, dubbed Boris Island.

But after failing to receive answers to the FoIs, Paul complained to the Information Commissioner, who has now given the two departments a deadline to reply.

His FoI relating to the BSF programme asked for information held in private emails exchanged between Education Secretary Michael Gove and his officials, along with Kent County Council, about a legal dispute after the programme was cancelled.

Paul’s request was made after the Financial Times published details of a leaked email written by Mr Gove on a private email account.

The Information Commissioner ruled earlier this year that it was the content of emails that determined if they were covered by the FoI Act and the DfE has now dropped its battle against this.

The department has been told it has until this week to respond to his FoI request.

On his blog, Paul wrote: “Frustrated by the DfE’s prevarication and despite any number of (unanswered) reminders, I eventually made a formal complaint to the Commissioner, who has now ruled that the DfE must give an answer within ten days.

“It could still reject my request, of course. It could tell me that any emails that might have been sent no longer exist (how convenient). It could give me everything I have asked for (being optimistic here). All I’d like is an answer of some description.

“Whatever the outcome, the episode is a good illustration of why journalists retain a healthy scepticism when it comes to the utterances of politicians who preach the virtues of transparency and accountability and then do completely the opposite.”

His other FoI request relates to an appeal with the Treasury for details of meetings that Chancellor George Osborne and officials had with the backers of various airport proposals, including London mayor Boris Johnson.

The Treasury provided initial details of which meetings were held in response to his request, which was made last November, but would not reveal details of what was discussed, so Paul appealed against this.

The Information Commissioner has ordered the department to deal with his appeal by the end of this month.



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