Observer stone-walled as sex offender story hots up

By Dominic Ponsford

Observer journalists have accused the Department for Education and Skills of “obfuscation” and adopting a “ridiculous”

position in response to their attempts to get answers about the sex offenders in schools affair.

Two
weeks after Observer journalists first requested answers from the DfES
over the number of sex offenders cleared to work as teachers, they say
they have yet to receive a straight answer from the Government.

Home
affairs editor Jamie Doward has tabled a formal Freedom of Information
Act request, but due to the time delays involved using this route,
editor Roger Alton has taken the unusual step of writing directly to
DfES permanent secretary David Bell demanding answers.

In his
letter Alton wrote: “The fact that our request for information has been
turned down does not accord, in our opinion, with open government.

We
believe this information should be divulged in the public interest
about a matter that is, rightly, of high concern to parents.”

Bell responded to Alton’s letter by declining to comment pending the outcome of Doward’s FoI request.

Two
weeks of media pressure on education secretary Ruth Kelly was sparked
when The Observer revealed she had approved the appointment of a
Norfolk PE teacher, later named as Paul Reeve, who was a registered
sex-offender.

Since then it has emerged that more convicted sex
offenders have been approved by the Government to work in British
schools, including William Gibson, 59, who was working at a school in
Bournemouth and this week gave interviews to journalists (see page 8).

Doward broke news of the Norfolk appointment following a tip-off from a contact.

Kamal
Ahmed, executive editor, news, said: “When he first came to me with the
story we were both struggling for an explanation in our own minds as to
why this appointment would have been signed off by a Government
minister.

I still don’t think we’ve had an answer to that question.”

He
said he and Doward took the story to Norfolk County Council and the
police, both of which handled the situation as “professionally and
openly as they could”. But there was a different response from the DfES.

“We
went to them on Friday morning and they came back to us with the
response that they don’t discuss individual cases. They then gave us
guidance that this was a unique situation and there was some confusion
over whether Mr Reeve should have been on these lists.

“We were
surprised how ill-prepared they were for our request. They were first
contacted about this issue by the Local Education Authority on 12
December. I would describe their response as obfuscation.”

Ahmed
said he was still waiting for answers to the questions put to the
department on 6 January. “How many other cases of this type have there
been where somebody on the sex offenders register has been approved by
the DfES to teach?”

He added: “Saying they don’t comment on
individual cases was clearly a ridiculous position to take for the DfES
and a position that wasn’t going to hold. Clearly the name was going to
come out as soon as we ran the story.”

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