19 Dec 2012

Education ministry criticism 'serious'

3:25 pm on 19 December 2012

A barrister in information law says criticism of the Ministry of Education by Ombudsman David McGee is very serious.

Dr McGee responded to concerns expressed by Christchurch schools over the ministry's handling of official information requests about planned school closures and mergers.

The report, published by the Office of the Ombudsman on Tuesday, said the ministry's behaviour had been misleading and indicated a fundamental misunderstanding of the Official Information Act.

The ministry told Christchurch City Council to deny having information the ministry had provided to it, and asked school principals to withdraw Official Information Act requests so their questions could be answered more quickly.

The report also raised doubts about the consultation that precedes school closures, saying schools and their communities should not have to ferret out information.

Barrister John Edwards says the most charitable interpretation is that it was a grossly misguided effort to influence another agency about official information requests, and less charitably, that somebody lied and told another agency to do likewise.

Legal challenge possible - Labour

The Labour Party says the critical review of the way information about proposed school closures in Christchurch has been handled could see the Government facing a legal challenge.

Labour's Christchurch schools spokesperson Chris Hipkins told Radio New Zealand's Morning Report programme there are elements of the process that the Government is going to have to start all over again.

He said cases where schools are fighting the move could end up being played out in the courts.

New Zealand Educational Institute president Ian Leckie believes the ministry needs to immediately restart its consultation with communities affected by proposed closures.

The report said the ministry might not be alone in the way it has handled information requests and the Chief Ombudsman will investigate OIA practices in several government agencies early next year.