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Belfast paper wins FOI case after five-month battle

The Belfast Telegraph has won a five-month battle for information on the financial problems of a cash-strapped education board.

The Information Commissioner ordered the release of a report compiled by external consultants on the finances of the South Eastern Education and Library Board after a Freedom of Information request by the paper in April.

The Telegraph complained to the Information Commissioner in June after the Department of Education withheld the consultants’ preliminary report.

The department has since claimed it planned to publish the report – and a progress report – at a later date.

It said releasing the second report would inhibit the SEELB in its efforts to effectively carry out its financial responsibilities, and was witholding the information under Section 22 of the FOI Act.

But the Information Commissioner has now ruled that the report should have been handed over in April.

Education correspondent Kathryn Torney has now received the consultants’ preliminary report but is still waiting on the second report which the Department of Education must provide within 35 days unless it appeals the ruling.

Kathryn told HoldtheFrontPage: “Two reports were written by the external consultants – the preliminary report which is six pages long was sent to me last week. I’m still waiting on the second one.

“I thought there was only one report, but after the Information Commissioner got involved in the case in June, I found out in August there was a second report.”

The preliminary report reveals that the board has no system to deal with budgets that have gone into deficit; has no sanction for overspending; and has little control over schools’ delegated expenditure.

Kathryn said: “There’s been quite a lot of reaction from the education world interested in the outcome.

“But I’ve been surprised at the lack of response from the board and department – maybe this will come out in the future.”

Kathryn said that a decision by the department to appeal the ruling would be controversial due to the costs of such a move.

She said: “It’s fascinating because it’s still a new area for the media. Each of these cases are very interesting because we still don’t know how different public authorities will react.”

In an opinion article, Kathryn wrote: “The financial woes of the South-Eastern Board are of great public interest. Decisions being taken by the commissioners currently running the board will affect thousands of children, teachers and parents in schools across the board’s area.

“It is only right that they should know what state the SEELB’s financial affairs are in. It’s just worrying that the public has endured months of waiting, and are still waiting, to find out.

“Amazingly, more than seven months have passed since the first KPMG report was compiled. Has the SEELB also waited this long before acting on the report’s recommendations?

“Financial constraints, falling pupil numbers and radical reforms planned for the education system in Northern Ireland mean that difficult decisions must be taken by all five of the education boards.

“However, the way to get the public on side is to keep people informed rather than shut them out.

“It is our hope that this decision notice will act as a warning to other public authorities. Newspapers will not simply stand aside when important information of great public interest is withheld.”

The Commissioner’s Decision Notice states: “The Commissioner is of the view that potential impact of media interest in an issue is not in itself a valid reason to withhold information which would inform the public about a matter of such importance as the financial situation of an education and library board.”

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