Lessons in law breaking

You could almost begin to feel sorry for the civil servants at the DCSF who have been inundated with requests under the Freedom of Information Act about every aspect of the now infamous home education review since it was first announced in January.

Baroness Delyth Morgan was leaving nothing to chance as she delivered a string of stigmatising soundbites in a smear campaign designed to demonise home educators, encouraging the usual suspects out from under their stones to take part in the state sponsored sport of home ed bashing. It was therefore hardly surprising that interested individuals should start asking questions about the background to the review, its cost, the cosy relationship between the Department and the NSPCC, and, not least of all, evidence to substantiate claims by some local authorities that home education was being used as a cover for child abuse, forced marriage, domestic servitude and every other social ill.

However, while the Freedom of Information Act sets out a maximum statutory timescale for responses to requests made to public bodies under its provisions, it appears that the DCSF is a law unto itself and has failed to respond at all to a significant number of straightforward questions.

For example, someone was curious about the overall cost to the Department of the review, but this request , submitted on 6th March 2009 and due for a statutory response no later than 6th April, has not been satisfied at the time of writing (3rd May) despite the questioner asking for an internal review of the DCSF’s handling of the request. What can possibly be difficult about sourcing budgetary information, and what could possibly be contentious about telling a member of the public how much is being paid to the various agencies (not individuals) involved in the execution of the review? If they have nothing to hide….

Similarly, this request dated 28 February, which simply sought copies of correspondence between the DCSF and the individual they commissioned to lead the review over the previous six months, has been stuck on a merry-go-round of computer generated responses ever since, none of which contains the information requested or an explanation of why it is being withheld.

There are many more for which no responses have been forthcoming by the statutory deadline, or even at all. Judging by the annotations on the What Do They Know website, which facilitates the making of FOI requests to public bodies and records their responses, there is a veritable army of dissatisfied DCSF ‘askers’ out there.

Civil servants may well be busy, but they are paid by the public purse to maintain a basic level of administrative competence and effectiveness. Besides, the departmental budget allocation must surely have taken into consideration the extra workload inherent in conducting the review?

Perhaps we will never know because we will never be told. Meanwhile, we can only assume that the DCSF must not only have a lot to hide, but that it also believes itself to be above the law.


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