The Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) has twice rejected the Alliance’s Freedom of Information (FOI) request for basic information about the work of its childcare taskforce - set up to drive delivery of the 30 hours and Tax-Free Childcare.
The DWP is also challenging a ruling from the Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) in favour of the Pre-School Alliance, instructing it to publish information confirming how many times the Childcare Implementation Taskforce has met, the dates of the meetings and who was in attendance.
The cross-departmental taskforce was established by the Government in June 2015 to drive the delivery of the 30 hours free childcare policy and Tax-Free Childcare scheme, as well as furthering improvements in the supply of childcare.
It was originally chaired by the Work and Pensions Minister Priti Patel, but is now headed up by the Education Secretary Justine Greening. Members of the Taskforce include the early years minister Caroline Dinenage, the employment minister Damian Hinds and the welfare reform minister Lord Freud.
According to the Government, all taskforces meet on a ‘regular basis’ and report to the Prime Minister and the Cabinet.
The Pre-School Learning Alliance filed a FOI request in December 2015 for basic information about the taskforce meeting dates and attendees. However, the DWP said that disclosing the requested information would ‘jeopardise ministerial communications and hamper the development of Government policy'. The Alliance says this is despite the fact that it was not asked to provide any information on meeting discussions or agendas.
Subsequently the Alliance filed a complaint to the ICO last month, which upheld the request and last November gave the Government 35 calendar days to provide the withheld information.
It stated, 'The Commissioner considers that to withhold the information would effectively be saying to the public there is a taskforce but we cannot tell you when it has considered policy or the participants of those considerations. The Commissioner is not satisfied that this is in the public interest and it runs contrary to the public interest in open Government.'
The DWP is now preparing an appeal against the ICO’s ruling at a first-tier tribunal scheduled for 9 May.
Neil Leitch, chief executive of the Pre-school Learning Alliance, said, ‘The creation of this taskforce was announced to great fanfare, so it is not unreasonable for us to ask how often these meetings have taken place and who has attended. The fact that the Government is going to such extreme lengths to avoid providing such basic information is frankly bizarre and raises some serious questions about what exactly has been going on behind the scenes.
‘I am staggered that in such a critical year for the early years sector, the Government is prepared to waste time, resources and taxpayers’ money to keep this information out of the public domain – especially given the ICO has been so clear in its ruling. In the interests of transparency and accountability, it should stop dragging its feet, release the information and get on with the job of developing and delivering a viable, sustainable childcare strategy.’
The DWP has been contacted for a response.