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Earlier this year, the Department of Education turned down our request under the Freedom of Information Act for access to fire-safety reports for a number of schools, including some in the Dublin area.
When we asked the department to do an internal review of this decision, it stuck with its refusal.
But last week, the Office of the Information Commissioner overruled that decision – and told the department to release the records.
The records date back a while. In October 2015, the Irish Examiner reported that the Department of Education was to carry out fire-safety inspections of five schools, after a “similarly built” school developed by the same firm, Western Building Systems, “was discovered to be a serious fire safety hazard”.
Children at the school would have had just 20 minutes to evacuate if there had been a blaze instead of the normal 60 minutes, according to the article.
Western Building Systems was also behind the first batch of “rapid-build” homes for homeless families in Poppintree, which families moved into in May 2016.
The Education Minister at the time, Labour’s Jan O’Sullivan, said that other schools built by Western Building Systems in 2008 and 2009 would undergo checks “immediately”, according to another 2015 Irish Examiner piece.
She said in the Dáil that same month that “pending the outcome of those assessments, it would be inappropriate for the Department to comment on what course of action may be considered regarding responsibility for any issues which might arise”.
While the concerns were highlighted in the media in October 2015, the fire safety reports were created between May and July 2016, according to information set out in the information commissioner’s ruling last week.
The Department of Education Press Office didn’t respond to a query as to why it took so long for the reports to be completed.
Dublin Inquirer first tried to get the fire safety audits under the Freedom of Information Act in December 2015, but they hadn’t been completed yet. We reapplied for the fire-safety audits for some of the schools in December 2016.
Five fire-safety reports fall within the scope of the request: those for Powerstown Education Together in Tyrrellstown, Belmayne Educate Together, Belmayne St Francis of Assisi, Greystones Gaelscoil, and Mullingar Educate Together.
The Department of Education argued that the records were exempt from release under several sections of the Freedom of Information (FOI) Act.
The records contain matter “relating to the deliberative processes of an FOI body” and disclosure would be “contrary to the public interest”, it argued.
Access could also “prejudice its attempts to conclude the fire safety investigations in a timely and efficient manner by causing difficulty in its relationship with the contractor”.
The contractor argued that the release of the records would have a “chilling effect” on cooperation between the department and building contractors when faced with problems with building works to schools. If released, they would give an “unbalanced picture”, it said.
The release of the records prior to the conclusion of the department’s process could have “a significant economic effect” on the company due to adverse publicity, the contractor also argued.
On this last note, the information commissioner noted that, according to the Department of Education, initial remedial works have been carried out by the contractor, and it anticipates that they will be done by September 2017.
“It appears, therefore, that many of the issues identified in the reports have already been rectified or will be by September 2017,” he said.
So he wasn’t satisfied that the release of the reports could be expected to result in a material financial loss to the contractor due to adverse publicity.
Several sections, including that related to fear of financial loss, were also subject to a public-interest balancing act.
“It seems to me that, at this point in time, the public interest in government being open and accountable outweighs the public interest in preventing the harms envisaged by the Department and the contractor,” said the information commissioner, in his ruling.
The department hasn’t yet released the fire-safety reports for the five schools. It, or any party affected by the decision, has four weeks to decide whether to appeal the information commissioner’s ruling to the High Court.