EXCL Ministers accused of 'hiding' impact of Brexit on schools as Lib Dems complain to watchdog

Posted On: 
31st December 2019

Ministers have been accused of "hiding" the impact of Brexit on schools amid a bitter freedom of information battle with the Liberal Democrats.

The Lib Dems said parents had 'a right to know that their children will be healthy and safe' under Brexit.
Credit: 
PA

The party has asked the Information Commissioner to step in after its attempts to get hold of a survey filled out by schools across the country were rejected by the Department for Education.

As a no-deal Brexit loomed late last year, education minister Lord Agnew wrote to all local councils, academy trusts and private schools saying his department required "a clearer understanding of school preparedness" for Brexit.

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He called on all schools to complete a survey about their plans to mitigate the impact of leaving the bloc, urging them to get in touch with food suppliers and medical firms as well as review their data protection policies to make sure they were ready for the possibility of Britain crashing out without an agreement.

But the Lib Dems have hit out at the government after it twice rejected calls to have the survey findings published under Freedom of Information laws - something the party argues would reassure parents.

The party's education spokesperson Layla Moran told PoliticsHome: "Boris Johnson and the Conservatives have form when it comes to hiding the impact of Brexit from the public. Now, they’re refusing to tell parents the effect of Brexit on our schools."

She added: "As the Conservatives recklessly wound down the clock towards a possible no-deal Brexit in October, Ministers passed the buck for Brexit preparations on to schools and councils.

"No headteacher should have to ask suppliers if their school can get enough food and medicine should our borders grind to a halt."

“Parents have a right to know that their children will be healthy and safe."

A report by Lord Agnew which leaked to the Observer in August warned that the DfE was "heavily dependent on the actions of major suppliers and other government departments to ensure continued provision" of fresh food for school meals under a no-deal outcome.

The report also warned that Dover in Kent could face heavy travel disruption leading to cancelled exams and "pupil and staff absence".

'OVERWHELMING PUBLIC INTEREST'

In the pitch to the DfE to unveil the information, the Lib Dems said there was an "overwhelming public interest" in it being released.

They argued that publishing the survey findings would "enable the public to know if the schools in their area are prepared for leaving the European Union".

But the Department rejected the party's first request, arguing that making the survey available could hit the "formulation or development of government policy" in the future.

The DfE said: "It is in the public’s interest to ensure that Ministers are being briefed effectively on key areas that will affect the way in which they make decisions.

"However, it is important that within this area, as in all other public policy areas, officials should be able to give and receive free and frank advice to Ministers, and that the ability to do that must be protected where appropriate. 

"The Government will ultimately use the information obtained through the survey to further inform Government policy and the formulation of any more targeted advice for schools on leaving the EU – but that development of advice is ongoing and not yet resolved. "

When the Lib Dems appealed that move, the DfE launched its own internal review, and again argued that publishing the information could "prejudice the effective conduct of public affairs", "affect the free and frank exchange of views", and could "put schools off sharing information with the department in the future".

PoliticsHome understands the Lib Dems have now stepped up their battle with the DfE by filing a complaint with the UK's data watchdog, the Information Commissioner's Office.

The move means the ICO will have to investigate whether the DfE has responded correctly to the call, and could see the department forced to publish the findings of the study if it the watchdog rules against it.

A Department for Education spokesperson said: "It is standard practice for exemptions in the FOI act to be used where information has been gathered or will be used to inform policy making, as is the case here.

"The Prime Minister has made clear the government's first task is to get Brexit done and maximise the opportunities it will provide.

"Britain will leave the EU at the end of January 2020 and we have already made extensive preparations ahead of that, and have provided guidance for schools and councils to help them prepare."

They added: "We will respond to the ICO in the usual way."