The Parliamentary ombudsman has criticised funding chiefs for "failing in every respect" to meet the requirements of the code of practice on access to government information.
Ruling on a complaint by former law lecturer Anthony Beck that the Higher Education Funding Council for England had unfairly denied him access to information, the Parliamentary commissioner for administration said it was "a matter of concern" that the council had not adhered to the code when it dealt with Mr Beck's request. But the ombudsman ruled that Hefce had been correct to withhold the requested information, and rejected the substance of his complaint.
Mr Beck was angry when Hefce declined to give him a full copy of a consultant's report it had commissioned into his concerns that the council had failed to deal properly with his complaints against his former employer, Guildhall University. Hefce removed two pages of the report, renumbered the remaining pages and changed the contents page in an apparent attempt to disguise the omissions.
Mr Beck complained to the ombudsman when Hefce refused to give him the omitted pages.
The ombudsman found that Hefce was entitled to withhold the pages. One included "opinions and assessments as to the head of review's employment history and his professional judgement". The other contained information on a 2000 audit of Guildhall's financial and management accountability.
But the ombudsman criticised the way in which the council handled the request. Under the code of practice, all requests for information should be treated as if made under the code, "irrespective of whether or not the code is referred to by the person requesting the information".
"I therefore find it a matter of concern that, although the council refused to provide the information requested by Mr Beck on several occasions between August 2001 and November 2001, they did not consider his request under the terms of the code until Mr Beck asked them to in his letter of 10 December 2001."
Once the council had considered and rejected the request under the code, it should have made clear to Mr Beck that he could seek a review under the code and could complain to the ombudsman if still dissatisfied.
"I must criticise them for the delay in dealing with this request for information under the code."
The ombudsman said that he had asked the chairman of Hefce to ensure the code was adhered to in future. "He accepted that they had failed in every respect to meet its requirements," he said, but added that the council had updated its internal guidance and would take the ombudsman's report into account when it updated its complaints procedure later in the year.
A Hefce spokesman said: "The ombudsman made a minor finding that we did not make it sufficiently clear to Mr Beck that we were applying the code in our decision-making and of his rights under the code. We have acknowledged this recommendation and have already reflected this in our internal procedures."
Fraud dossier gets lost amid RAE information
When former researcher Alan O'Day raised a number of serious concerns about alleged research assessment fraud and the allocation of public money with the Higher Education Funding Council for England in March 2001, Hefce promised an investigation. But almost 18 months later, there has been little progress.
Late last month, Dr O'Day was told by Hefce's head of internal audit, Ian Gross, that it had lost the dossier of allegations and evidence he sent them last year. "Clearly we can only apologise for this. If mitigation is appropriate or necessary, you will appreciate that you provided the dossier to Hefce at a time when the research assessment exercise team had enormous quantities of information to handle, and despite our systems... information may have gone astray."
Mr Gross asked Dr O'Day to re-send the dossier and said he would examine it "with a fresh eye". But when the dossier arrived at the end of last month, Mr Gross said: "I may not be able to review this information for some time, due to other commitments."
A Hefce spokesman this week said: "The RAE team initially dealt with this case, but when the members of the team left there was a delay in Hefce picking it up... Allegations implying that we have allocated incorrect funding will always be pursued."
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