On Tuesday, the British Humanist Association (BHA) made its final written submission in an ongoing Information Tribunal case over whether the Government must publish a list of all groups which have proposed to set up Free Schools – including their name, location and religion. The case – Department for Education v Information Commissioner and British Humanist Association – started because of a Freedom of Information (FOI) request the BHA made in June last year, and should hopefully be concluded around the end of this year.
On 21 June 2011, the BHA submitted an FOI request, asking for the names, locations and religions of all 604 groups that had then applied to set up Free Schools. Currently, this information is only known for the 79 groups which had been backed by the Government to open.
The Government rejected this request, on the grounds that the information was exempt because it constituted the development of government policy. In addition, the Government concluded that the public interest lies against disclosure.
As a consequence, in September, the BHA complained to the Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO), who in July this year ruled that the public interest was in favour of disclosure. However, in August the Government appealed the decision to the Information Tribunal. The BHA subsequently became a party to the case, and submitted its initial response.
On Tuesday, the three parties exchanged final written submissions to the case. The case will not have an oral hearing, but will be considered on paper by the Tribunal on 5 December, with a judgement to come within weeks.
In its appeal, the Government argued that releasing a list of proposed Free Schools would discourage applicants and therefore lead to less Free Schools opening. In its 11,500 word submission, the BHA argued that the Government has not provided any evidence that this would be the case, and instead contended that the publication would increase public trust in the Free Schools programme. Furthermore, the BHA emphasised the importance of transparency and accountability, especially with the large amount of money involved in the decision, and emphasised the important role in improving public debate. Finally, the BHA also challenged the decision that the list constitutes the development of government policy, instead arguing that it constitutes routine and ongoing government business.
BHA Education Campaigner Richy Thompson commented, ‘The BHA is not opposed to Free Schools, although we do have concerns about some aspects such as the potential for increased religious discrimination in the curriculum and in employment policies, and about the wider diversity of religious schools that are now opening through the programme, including evangelical and pseudoscientific schools.
‘The lack of transparency around the programme can sometimes make it very difficult for local citizens to be aware of Free School proposals until the Government has supported them to open. By this point, it is often too late to stop them progressing, even when valid issues are raised. More transparency is needed in order to allow proper scrutiny of what is proposed.’
For further comment or information, please contact Richy Thompson on 020 7462 4993.
Read the ICO ruling on the BHA’s case: http://www.humanism.org.uk/_uploads/documents/ico-ruling-fs50415927.pdf
Read the BHA news item, ‘BHA submits response to legal case over whether Government must publish list of proposed Free Schools’, 28 September 2012: http://www.humanism.org.uk/news/view/1120
Read the BHA news item, ‘BHA becomes party to legal case over whether Government must publish list of proposed Free Schools’, 28 August 2012: http://www.humanism.org.uk/news/view/1101
Read the BHA press release, ‘Government appeals Information Commissioner ruling that it must publish list of proposed Free Schools’, 9 August 2012: http://www.humanism.org.uk/news/view/1091
Read the BHA press release, ‘Landmark ruling: Information Commissioner concludes that DfE must publish list of proposals to open Free Schools’, 6 July 2012: http://www.humanism.org.uk/news/view/1067
Read more about the BHA’s campaigns work on ‘faith’ schools: http://www.humanism.org.uk/campaigns/religion-and-schools/faith-schools
The British Humanist Association is the national charity working on behalf of non-religious people who seek to live ethical and fulfilling lives on the basis of reason and humanity. It promotes a secular state and equal treatment in law and policy of everyone, regardless of religion or belief.