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DfE Says It Did Not Embargo Bristol Safety Valve

Department for Education discloses there was no embargo around city’s Safety Valve row

The controversy surrounding Bristol City Council’s secret Safety Valve application continues to grow this week after the Department for Education (DfE) revealed it did not ask Bristol to keep its application under wraps.

The need for confidentiality was one of the fundamental reasons underpinning the Labour Cabinet’s argument for adding a late agenda item regarding the programme to Cabinet on 05 March 2024.

The late papers revealed that Bristol City Council had submitted a secret application to the DfE’s Safety Valve programme. The revelation sparked a political row in the city for both making the secret application to a widely loathed programme and submitting papers too late to scrutinse.

In public meetings, senior education officers had talked extensively about the fact it was working on the Delivering Better Value in Send programme.

The late papers appeared online 24 hours ahead of the Cabinet meeting leaving no time for public scrutiny or public forum submissions.

To enable the late papers to go to Cabinet, APR 16 can be used in cases of ‘special urgency’ if the chair of a ‘relevant Overview and Scrutiny body’ is in agreement.

Whilst many have suggested that this would have likely been in the remit of Councillor Christine Townsend, Chair of People Scrutiny Commission, Mayor Marvin Rees instead approached Councillor Tony Dyer, Chair of Overview and Scrutiny Management Board (OSMB).

Released under the FOI Act to Alex McKinstry:

The email from Marvin Rees said: ‘The additional report is titled “Safety Valve Programme” and it cannot be deferred because the DfE require us to sign and return the agreement by the 11 March. We have been engaged in confidential negotiations with the Department for Education, who have now given their consent for us to make public the decision to enter into contract for the Safety Valve Programme. The full details are still under embargo, hence the cabinet report only deals with the financial aspect and provides high level outline of the proposed actions.’

The email was sent on 01 March 2024 at 5.23pm to both Dyer and Councillor Geoff Gollop.

Copied into the email by Rees included Deputy Mayor with responsibility for Children’s Services, Education and Equalities Councillor Asher Craig, Councillor Craig Cheney, Executive Director of Education Hannah Woodhouse, CEO of Bristol City Council Stephen Peacock, Monitoring Officer Tim O’Gara, Director of Education Reena Bhogal-Welsh and Section 151 Officer Denise Murray, who has since left.

Despite the decision being made by Dyer in less than half an hour, it took Bristol City Council several more days to upload the papers to the Cabinet agenda.

The claim that the Department for Education insisted that Bristol City Council kept the Safety Valve discussions shrouded in secrecy was exposed as a lie this week after we received the response to a Freedom of Information request to the DfE asking for the details around Bristol’s embargo.

We asked: ‘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.’

In response, the DfE sent a copy of the invitation letter it sent to Bristol City Council to engage in Safety Valve programme discussions.

An officer at the DfE also replied to say there was no such embargo required of Bristol City Council.

The officer wrote: ‘A copy of the invitation letter sent to Bristol City Council regarding the Safety Valve programme is enclosed. Bristol’s invitation to engage in discussions about joining the Safety Valve programme and their Safety Valve proposal were not under embargo from the Department. It is for local authorities to decide how they handle the process locally.’

The disclosure by the DfE will likely cause outrage after Marvin Rees has persisted in stating the Safety Valve application was under embargo.

At Full Council on Tuesday 12 March 2024, Bristol Send parent Fiona Castle asked Marvin Rees in person a question regarding the details of the embargo.

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She asked: “In the paperwork submitted to the Cabinet meeting last week and subsequent comments by the Mayor and Deputy Mayor, it was stated that Bristol’s joining of the government Safety Valve programme had to remain secret up till then by order of the Department for Education. Given that other LA’s who’ve been invited to join the program at the same time as Bristol have shared information with the public, can the council confirm if the other LAs are in violation of a DfE embargo or if in fact Bristol has chosen to hide this negotiation from the public?”

Marvin Rees replied: “I can’t comment on what the other LAs have done and that would be for DfE to talk about. That would be for other local authorities to talk with the DfE about and for DfE to draw their conclusions. What I can say that is in August 2023, DfE confirmed that Safety Valve negotiations could not be made public and the terms of any negotiated agreement were to remain confidential until published by the DfE themselves and they’ve reiterated this that to us since. You know our job is to work with the DfE and let the DfE work with other local authorities.”

In a follow up supplementary question, Castle asked: “While the actual financial part of the agreement had to remain secret the fact that you were in negotiations for Safety Valve didn’t. The Department for Education have said as of the last week, that councils are free to choose to publicise this how they choose to. Why did you not want to publicise this?”

In response, Rees said: “Yeah, that’s not the case. That wasn’t the direction we had from DfE. It was all negotiations had to remain between us and them until they published it. If they’ve changed their position since then, if you have insight into another position, then you know glad to hear about it but the direction to us was has to remain confidential.”

The outrage surrounding the secret application and use of (APR 16) saw the decision listed as an agenda item in the same meeting.

The Director of Legal and Democratic Services Tim O’Gara, submitted the recommendation for Full Council to note.

The agenda item saw the meeting take an explosive turn after the Lord Mayor chairing the meeting banged his gavel so hard calling order its head shot off.

Councillor Asher Craig also referenced the embargo during her speech.

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She said: “On completion of this process the council Safety Valve application was formally submitted to the DfE on the 12 January 2024 following engagement with Cabinet board, the council’s Finance Scrutiny Task Force and the submission was supported by the CEO, the Director of Education and Skills and the council’s Section 151 officer. The full details of our SV proposals are under embargo, hence the Cabinet report only dealing with the high level outlines of the proposed actions and financial contributions requested.”

Asher Craig and Executive Director of Education, Hannah Woodhouse, spoke about the future of Bristol education – including the Safety Valve – to Send families and school staff at an event the week following the Full Council meeting.

When a parent carer asked Woodhouse for clarification around the Safety Valve investment vs. writing off the deficit, Woodhouse struggled to answer the question.

She said: “Listen, I’ve been in this role for not very long.” Only some minutes before, she had stressed that she had only been in the job six weeks. This was despite being a signatory on Bristol’s Safety Valve agreement just under two weeks earlier.

She told families that she was “Really genuinely, really happy to sit down, for as long as you like, with all the details about Safety Valve that we have and talk about it.”

A baffled parent carer chimed in: “But you’ve not, it’s all be done in secrecy. You’ve had opportunities to do that. You’re not!”

Woodhouse again reiterated that she would be “Very, very happy to do that and I mean it, really, really happy to do that.”

Craig jumped in saying: “Can I just make one point though, the point is, you keep saying that, there was secrecy. I take issue with secrecy. There are individuals particularly at our last meeting making claims that no one was aware that we had gone through the process. We have actually been briefing other councillors and others going forwards in relation…”

The claims were met with jeering ridicule from some of the families, leaving Craig to abandon speaking.

Woodhouse took over saying: “I do know a little bit about this. When you’re working up a Safety Valve plan you are told very clearly by the Department for Education that we obviously cannot share the details. If you look at some of the authorities who have joined the Safety Valve and had a look at their processes and the publication of their papers they’ve done it under an exempt way. I don’t want to name them because I don’t want to sort of create…but there is a, there were restrictions on what we could share and again, really happy to engage in this.”

Further details around the Bristol Safety Valve agreement will be discussed in a joint meeting between OSMB and People Scrutiny Commission on 08 April 2024

A Safety Valve Capital Funding paper will be going to Cabinet on Tuesday 09 April 2024

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