How long can it take? A case study in Slow Government - Simon Lebus

How long can it take? A case study in Slow Government - Simon Lebus

We hosted a hustings event last week attended by the Cambridge City candidates for the Conservative, Labour and Liberal Democrat Parties and a representative from the Green Party. It was the 23rd such event that the candidates have been involved in over the last five weeks of the campaign and it was a great tribute to them that they were still able to engage courteously and energetically (though not succinctly) with the questions from the floor and with each other.

Naturally, by this stage of the campaign most of the lines were well-rehearsed and there were few surprises. It was also interesting to learn that none of them had read any of the other Parties' manifestos!

I took the opportunity to seek a commitment that whoever is finally elected would support our efforts to secure equitable application of the Freedom of Information (FOI) Act across all UK exam boards. At present, the only UK exam board subject to FOI requests is OCR, since it qualifies as a public body as it is part of the University of Cambridge.

In contrast, neither AQA nor Edexcel (a subsidiary of the Pearson corporation) come under the provisions of FOI legislation because they are deemed to be private bodies. This is clearly anomalous, as the provision of public exams is a matter of legitimate public interest and as it puts OCR in an invidious competitive position.

I have been corresponding with the Department of Constitutional Affairs and subsequently the Ministry of Justice about this since 2005, on the basis that the Act includes provision for it to be extended to other bodies where there is a legitimate public interest and where they are carrying out a public service. A decade of (albeit sporadic) correspondence later – indeed at one stage it took so long to extract a reply to an earlier letter that we had to submit a freedom of information request to find out what had happened to it - we are very little further forward. There was a press release three or four years ago in which the Ministry noted that it was considering extending the act to other awarding bodies, since when no more has been heard.

The fact that this matter has been grinding through the system for a decade (lubricated by correspondence with all the MPs who've represented Cambridge during this time) does not reflect well on the efficiency or despatch with which government discharges its business and it will therefore be very good if whoever is our next MP is able to bring it to a conclusion before the term of a fourth Parliament expires.

Tony Blair wrote in his memoirs that the passage of the FOI Act was the greatest mistake of his Premiership. I suspect few would agree with that, but our own experience suggests it has certainly been one of his treacleier legacies!

Simon Lebus
Group Chief Executive, Cambridge Assessment