Signifying nothing

by | Feb 21, 2013 | Christopher Graham, FOI, Michael Gove, Uncategorized

I was an FOI / DP officer in local government for the first five years of FOI’s operation, and like everyone else in the field, I got used to spotting trends – certain topics would come up again and again, certain requests would follow certain events. Of course, I also got used to certain names – journalists from the Mirror, the Telegraph, and the Sunday Times, and activists / staffers from the opposition political parties. Reading an old article by the Bureau of Investigative Journalism about Michael Gove’s special advisers this morning, I was struck by how many names I recognised from those requests.

There is nothing remotely sinister about this. In opposition, the research departments of both the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats (as well as some campaigning MPs and their researchers) made enthusiastic use of FOI, and so they should have. This is one of the things that FOI is designed for – to allow access to unpublished information so that authority can be questioned and challenged. The political motive is irrelevant. When the two coalition parties eventually find themselves in opposition again, they will use FOI to the same ends. Presumably, in those places where they are in local government opposition, they still do. Anyone who complains about this is naïve to the point of stupidity – oppositions oppose, and they will hunt out useful and inconvenient stories wherever they can find them.

I point this out not to criticise Gove’s minions for their use of FOI – I commend them for it. My point is to suggest that the Education Secretary’s current attitude to FOI and the way his circle have apparently tried to circumvent it is hypocritical and counter-intuitive. The evolutionary end of Gove’s three-year war with transparency and accountability is the public letter he wrote this week to the Information Commissioner, throwing in the towel over his attempts to allow religious and other groups to apply to run free schools in secret. Gove’s petulant missive was big on claim: “We are aware of personal attacks on individuals who simply want to improve educational standards and choice locally” and “We have been told of instances where teachers have lost their jobs simply by virtue of their association with a Free School application”. But it was short on detail. A few years ago, Gove managed to get massive headlines about unfair adoption practices based on a story that turned out to be an anecdote passed on by a third party which no-one in his department had checked. The language here is interesting – ‘We are aware’ and ‘We have been told’ are careful phrases perhaps intended to give Mr. Gove plausible deniability if his claims can be proved to be scaremongering bollocks.

If Gove wanted to make a public interest argument against disclosure of free school applicants, real evidence of personal attacks and what sound like potential illegal sackings of teachers would be gold. The thrust of Gove’s letter is that a legal and legitimate policy is being undermined by unfair and possibly illegal activities that will be exacerbated by the disclosure of the applicants. I have no evidence that Gove and his advisers have invented or exaggerated the mischief, but if these cases are real, it is very hard to understand why he is ducking the opportunity to present evidence of them to the Tribunal. It is even harder to understand why there is not currently a huge public effort to get the sacked teachers reinstated, and their tormentors punished. After all, it is not illegal to be involved in a free school, so why would Gove tolerate such appalling treatment and what is he doing to stop it, other than whining about nasty Chris Graham?

In a calorific interview with Jan Moir in the Daily Mail, Gove described himself as a Marmite politician. The one time I tried Marmite, I vomited so hard and for so long that I burst blood vessels in my nose, so I think I know what he means. But it does nothing for those who are not his acolytes that he tries to suggest that an independent public servant is somehow opposing or assisting those who oppose government policy merely by doing his job. We already know that whatever Gove used private email for, he didn’t have a sufficiently solid case to test its legitimacy at the Tribunal. We know that his Department has a sufficiently poor record on responding to FOI requests that they’re being subjected to monitoring again by the ICO. There are plenty of issues where Gove and transparency seem to have an unfamiliar relationship: sales of school playing fields, headteacher’s salaries, and his own policies to name three. Even Gove’s online cheerleaders won’t use their real names (whoever actually runs the  @toryeducation Twitter account, they are oddly ashamed of being associated with it in public).

The important thing about Gove’s letter is that shows that posturing and insults are no substitute for the rigour that FOI refusals require. The argument that the public have a right to know who wants to run schools in England is a solid and obvious one to make, and if Gove and his adjutants don’t have anything sufficiently concrete to counter it, then they have to accept defeat and move on.  The letter simply shows that Gove has nothing else – on this issue at least – but bluster. It doesn’t matter what his letter says or what bad faith it attributes to others. On the matter of FOI principle, the Secretary of State has come up empty.

The other important thing to note about Gove’s battles with FOI is the legacy he has left for those who follow him. As I said at the start, the same people that are allegedly trying to get around FOI originally found it valuable. By relentlessly exposing the Information Commissioner’s lack of appetite for taking on recalcitrant Government departments, Gove has taught the Labour Party a valuable lesson for the next time they are in power. The Information Commissioner will not take enforcement action against Gove’s department despite endless justification. I believe that the DfE are unable or unwilling to comply with a legal demand to get their FOI house in order, and issuing an Enforcement Notice would inevitably result in a confrontation the ICO does not have the stomach for. Chris Graham is the most effective Information Commissioner so far and he is a very smart communicator but  his office seems to struggle with properly enforcing FOI and Gove has proved it. One day, the coalition’s successors will lose an election (they didn’t win the last one), and once again, they will want to use FOI for wholly legitimate campaigning activities. However much Labour might now be trying to argue the case for FOI, they brought it in and then their Leader spurned it. Gove’s disdain for FOI may end up pulling up the ladder the next time his party needs it.