Dominic Ponsford sees how the code on accessing government information can get results

Messenger exposes waste

Francis: revealed money wasting

The open government code has been used by the Kent Messenger Group to expose the huge cost of a “nonsensical law”, prompting the paper to launch a campaign on the issue.

The Code of Practice on Access to Government Information, launched by the Major Government in 1994, has not been widely used by the press. But it establishes guidelines by which government departments should comply with requests for information.

The Kent Messenger used the code to reveal that the Government has “wasted” £1.7m on a legal technicality involving the status of grammar schools in its circulation area.

Group political editor Paul Francis said: “I was aware that the code existed and that I could request information using it, so I have been looking for the right opportunity.”

He decided to target government legislation which allows parents of children at the country’s grammar schools to prompt abolition votes.

Under the law, it takes only 10 parents to sign a petition to trigger the first stage of the process. This has happened for the past three years in Kent, which has the largest number of grammar schools in the country.

As a result, every school in the county has had to compile lists of hundreds of parents who would be eligible to vote. These lists must then be checked by the Electoral Reform Society, which uses them to see how many parents would need to sign a petition calling for a referendum.

Because the names are only valid for a year, the process can be restarted every 12 months.

After submitting a query citing the open government code, Francis was able to get the Department for Education and Skills to reveal that this process had cost £1.7m in Kent alone, even though no actual vote had taken place since 1999.

He said: “Our object was to see if we could get a good local angle on something for which there has previously only been national figures. Not only did it give us a good story, it prompted us to start a campaign calling for the Government to scrap this ridiculous law. Whatever the merits of grammar schools, it’s nonsensical to have so much public money being wasted.”


Guardian takes ministers’ secrecy to High Court

One down: the lobby complaint was upheld

Next week The Guardian takes the Government to the High Court to fight for information about ministers’ interests which it requested two years ago.

The Government initially refused the request, made under the open government code, which prompted the paper to complain to parliamentary ombudsman Ann Abraham.

In July the Lord Chancellor took the unusual step of signing a certificate preventing Abraham from looking into the matter. He said disclosure of information about ministers’ conflicts of interest would be “prejudicial to the safety of the state or otherwise contrary to the public interest”.

The Government wants to stop the release of three documents relating to possible conflicts of interest involving three unnamed ministers.

Guardian reporter Rob Evans said: “It’s a massive affront to the ombudsman because it stops her even investigating the matter. We are happy to abide by what the ombudsman rules as the adjudicator under the system – the Government saying she can’t investigate is like taking the ball away.

“This is about ministers who have had some conflict between private wealth and public duties and how they have dealt with that. It’s that type of allegation that brought down the Major Government.

“It’s also about allowing the ombudsman to do her job. The Government sits there and says great things about its commitment to open government and then it acts in this way and serves a certificate.”

In a separate development, this week the parliamentary ombudsman upheld a complaint made by The Guardian after Downing Street refused a request for information about contacts with lobbyists.

Number Ten was forced to reveal Tony Blair met Labour donor Dr Paul Grayson in December 2001 when the Government was deciding on which company to award a £32m smallpox vaccine contract to. Grayson’s company PowderJect later won.

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