Standard wins two-year FoI ministers battle

The Evening Standard has won a landmark two-year case against the Government using the Freedom of Information Act.

The Department for Education and Skills was ordered on Wednesday to reveal details regarding its handling of the 2003 schools budgets crisis by the Information Tribunal, the body responsible for policing the FoI Act.

The DfES will now have to hand over advice given to ministers, including then Home Secretary Charles Clarke, from civil servants during spring and summer 2003.

The department argued that disclosing this information would constitute a "major perceived threat to the role of the Civil Service", but in a judgment, Tribunal chairman David Farrer QC said the DfES was trying to withhold advice given to ministers to protect the Government's reputation.

The judgment said: "As to protection of ministers from premature or unfair criticism based on disclosed communications with senior officials, confidentiality as to such communications is not always, we think, treated by ministers as sacrosanct.

"It is not unknown for a minister to announce, in the face of public clamour, what information or advice he or she was or was not given by his or her officials, perhaps in order to protect his or her personal position and career."

Dominic Hayes, the Standard's education reporter, first requested the information just days after the Act came into force on 1 January, 2005. The request was refused and the paper lost an internal appeal.

It asked Information Commissioner Richard Thomas to intervene and the case went to the Information Tribunal A spokeswoman for the Information Commissioner's Office said: "This information is clearly a matter of public interest. People have a right to find out about decisions being taken in their name and with their taxes."

Evening Standard managing editor Doug Wills said: "It is gratifying that the dogged determination of Dominic and our legal team have led to these important facts being brought into the public domain. There should not have been an argument, but we are delighted that we have won it."

The DfES now has 30 days in which to decide whether to appeal the Tribunal's decision in the High Court.

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