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Bristol Safety Valve Row: DfE Stands by No Embargo Statement

  • Department for Education says there was no embargo on Safety Valve
  • Bristol City Council says the Department for Education made a mistake
  • Cabinet education lead Asher Craig said it was ‘laughable’ ‘conspiracy theories’
  • Department for Education repeats the no embargo stance

The Bristol Safety Valve row over claims by Bristol City Council that its process was to remain confidential and embargoed has had further doubts cast on the claim by the Department for Education this week.

Our First Safety Valve Request
In March, we made a Freedom of Information (FOI) Request asking the DfE to clarify the details around the alleged Safety Valve embargo.

The request through What Do They Know was: ‘Please can you release the details around Bristol City Council’s embargo regarding the invitation to join the Safety Valve programme.

‘What exactly were the rules around the invitation from the Department for Education regarding Bristol’s application. Specifically all information around the requirement for Bristol City Council to keep the invitation confidential.

‘Please can you release any paperwork around this. Also, any rules or restrictions around making public its application up to 05 March 2024.’

The DfE responded: ‘Bristol’s invitation to engage in discussions about joining the Safety Valve programme and their Safety Valve proposals were not under embargo from the Department. It is for local authorities to decide how they handle the process locally.’

Bristol City Council CEO Blames DfE
Following this, we then submitted a public question to a Joint Meeting between People Scrutiny Commission and Overview and Scrutiny Management Board (OSMB) on 08 April 2024.

Our question was: ‘Please disclose the communication or evidence where the Department for Education recommended or insisted that Bristol’s application to the Safety Valve was an entirely secret process.’

The written response from a council officer stated: ‘In August 2023 after being invited to develop a safety valve bid the DfE advised BCC officers in writing that whilst they should inform elected members as part of the democratic process, they should not announce this work publicly.’

In light of this, we asked a further supplementary question in Public Forum on the day, asking: “My actual question was Please disclose the communication or evidence where the Department for Education recommended or insisted that Bristol’s application to the Safety Valve was an entirely secret process. The council’s maintaining the view that it was a secret process. So, are you saying the Department for Education is lying, because I’m not sure why you’ve chosen not to publish the evidence proving the Department for Education is lying. So effectively, are you calling the Department for Education a liar?”

Chief Executive of Bristol City Council, Stephen Peacock replied: “The Department for Education made a mistake. They’ve have acknowledged that to us. They gave us clear instructions that the information was strictly under embargo. They then announced or responded to a request that was made to say it wasn’t.

“They’ve acknowledged that was a mistake and the Mayor is going to be speaking to the relevant officials tomorrow because clearly this has caused some distress.

“I can confirm that the chair of OSMB has seen the correspondence that basically we followed the advice and the request given to us by DfE.

“We also know that they said something different when asked and that was a mistake in their department which they’ve acknowledged to us and which is why the Mayor is speaking to them tomorrow and I’m sure the Mayor will then want to make a comment.”

Now former Cabinet education lead Asher Craig brands claims the council has lied ‘laughable’ and ‘conspiracy theories’

Cabinet Education Lead brands incident ‘hysteria and conspiracy theories’
In a Cabinet meeting on Tuesday 09 April with Safety Valve on the agenda, Cabinet education lead Asher Craig stated her opinion on the row around the alleged secrecy.

She said: “I just wanted to add though that there’s been a lot of hysteria and conspiracy theories swirling around what was said and what wasn’t said and what was done around the Safety Valve which I find quite laughable at best.

“But it’s clear as far as I’m concerned that opposition parties not used to real political leadership are running scared.”

In the meeting’s Public Forum, Bristol resident Jai Breitnauer asked: “In the safety valve report it states the DfE requested secrecy in August 2023 and this is why Bristol Council did not undertake the usual democratic process. I have spoken to the DfE and they have told me there was no embargo before the agreement was signed in March 2024. They said that councils are free to discuss safety valve and undertake usual democratic process and they advised me that Bristol’s leaders either misunderstood or misappropriated the embargo advice. I want to know which one it is, and why?”

Asher Craig responded: “In August 2023 after being invited to develop the Safety Valve bid, the DfE advised us in writing that whilst they should inform elected members as part of the democratic process, we could not announce this work publicly. This has been shared with the chair of OSMB.”

Mayor insists DfE made a mistake
Marvin Rees also addressed the Safety Valve secrecy claims saying in the meeting: “I did actually talk to a senior at DfE this morning because I was concerned about this mismatch, as was told that we have had direct communications from DfE both directly into our own Children’s Services, but also into our financial team that this was embargoed and not to be in the public domain, particularly when the negotiations of getting onto the Safety Valve and then a note coming out from an officer from a civil servant saying that it could be public.

“DfE have admitted that mistake in my conversation with the senior officer this morning at 10.30am. He acknowledged that a mistake had been made as well. My point to him was that mistakes happen, but what you need to realise is that that mistake has caused a lot of heat within the city and controversy and has led to a number of people taking that and accusing people of lying and so forth when that’s not actually the case.

“He acknowledged that. What I suggested to him is that they need to say something publicly. While as a civil servant they can’t just turn something around like that in a day, I did suggest that they come back on Friday and say what they will do to themselves, acknowledge that a mistake was made in the way they communicated with us and then subsequently with the public and that mismatch of information.”

Department for Education stand by their FOI response
In light of Bristol City Council’s claims, we returned to the DfE to ask for an internal investigation into the original response.

We told the Department for Education: ‘The CEO of Bristol City Council Stephen Peacock and Bristol Mayor Marvin Rees, insist that the information given here is a mistake. The chair of OSMB has also said that he has seen correspondence from the DfE showing that the information regarding Bristol Safety Valve was embargoed.

‘Please make all communications between Bristol City Council and the Mayors Office and the DfE regarding all aspects of the Safety Valve available. Including all documentation or communication where the DfE has communicated in some way that the Safety Valve at any point from invitation onwards must be kept confidential.’

In response to the Internal Review request, the DfE wrote: ‘The department has now completed its internal review process and has carried out a thorough review of the case, chaired by a senior official who was not involved with the original request. The department has decided to uphold the original decision to only disclose the information concerned, for the same reasons set out in the letter of 28 March 2024.’

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