From the Guardian
Civil servants attempting to answer parliamentary questions about the Tories’ free schools programme had their requests blocked by a key adviser to education secretary Michael Gove, leaked emails reveal.
Civil servants feared they would be “seen as … obstructing parliament” if they failed to respond to the MP’s inquiry, the emails show.
The questions related to the New Schools Network, a charity set up to provide advice and guidance to the schools.
Labour MP Caroline Flint had asked Gove how many “expressions of interest” in setting up free schools the New Schools Network had received in her constituency, Don Valley, and in Doncaster. She also asked how many private schools had made either expressions of interest or formal proposals to become a free school.
Dominic Cummings, a confidant of Gove who was freelancing for the charity at the time, told a senior civil servant: “NSN is not giving out to you, the media or anybody else any figure on ‘expressions of interest’ for PQs, FOIs or anything else. Further, NSN has not, is not, and will never answer a single FOI request made to us concerning anything at all.”
Cummings is now at the centre of a row over the use of private emails by Gove’s closest advisers when conducting government business.
The Information Commissioner’s office is investigating claims that civil servants were unable to find these emails when asked to retrieve them under the Freedom of Information act. Emails seen by the Guardian show that Cummings directed civil servants not to comply with the parliamentary question.
An official at the department replied to this by saying, in an email: “Our advice is clear: we need to respond as fully as possible to parliament.”
The purpose of parliamentary questions is to hold ministers accountable, obliging them to explain and defend government policy to MPs.
In response to Flint’s questions, schools minister Nick Gibb said: “New Schools Network does not receive expressions of interest.” Gibb also told parliament that there had been one free school proposal in Doncaster and 45 private schools seeking to convert.
At the time of the email exchange, in July last year, Cummings was freelancing at the New Schools Network. He was appointed as one of Gove’s special advisers in February this year. Prior to that appointment, he was closely involved in government work.
In response to an FOI request, the Department for Education has disclosed that “prior to his appointment, Mr Cummings attended a range of meetings at the department to allow him to become familiar with the portfolio of a special adviser”.
Charities are not subject to the FOI act, which applies only to public authorities.
However, critics say the email raises fresh questions about Gove’s advisers and their “secretive” attitude to official business.
Andy Burnham, the shadow education secretary, said: “These extraordinary exchanges shed further light on the murky dealings around Michael Gove. We already know that Dominic Cummings lobbied for cash to be given to the New Schools Network ‘without delay’, an organisation he went on to work for. We now learn that on arrival he sought to implement a restrictive and secretive approach to dealing with parliamentary enquiries.
“It would seem that Dominic Cummings holds an arrogant disregard for government processes and accountability to parliament. I have asked the cabinet secretary to investigate the actions of Dominic Cummings and other advisers to Michael Gove.”
Shortly after the election, David Cameron declared that the government must “set new standards” for transparency. In a letter to government departments, he wrote: “Greater transparency across government is at the heart of our shared commitment to enable the public to hold politicians and public bodies to account.”
Critics say the free schools programme has been characterised by a lack of transparency. The government has refused to disclose details of applications to set up free schools next September.
The department has declined an FOI request by the Association of Colleges, which represents further education and sixth form colleges, to see the list of applications to open free schools for 16-19-year-olds.
Martin Doel, chief executive of the Association of Colleges, said: “It is the Secretary of State’s statutory duty to consider the impact of new schools on other local providers.
“New schools need to start with the support of the local community, other local schools and Colleges. If this information is not made public, we could see the unnecessary duplication of some good College provision for 16-19-year olds. Some Colleges may have to close particular courses if class sizes became unsustainable.”
The Financial Times has reported that Gove and his advisers conducted government business on private emails. Civil servants were then unable to find these emails, which included discussions of replacing DfE personnel, when asked to retrieve them under the FOI Act.
In response, a spokesman for the DfE said: “The Cabinet Office is clear that private email accounts do not fall within the FOI Act and are not searchable by civil servants. Neither the secretary of state nor special advisers have been asked to disclose emails sent from private accounts.”
Maurice Frankel, director of the pressure group Campaign for Freedom of Information, said: “If [Gove] or his special advisers used their private email accounts to carry out government business, those emails are subject to the FOI Act.”
The DfE spokesman added that Sir David Bell, the permanent secretary, is looking into the FT allegations, and added: “The permanent secretary is satisfied that ministers and special advisers act within the law.”