Government refuses to release correspondence relating to National Citizen Service row

The Challenge went into administration soon after losing a £60m contract to provide places on the National Citizen Service, but ministers are refusing to release correspondence between the government and the two

The government has refused to release its correspondence with the National Citizen Service Trust and The Challenge that took place before the latter’s collapse into administration.

The Department for Digital, Culture, Media & Sport has turned down a request from Third Sector made under the Freedom of Information Act on the grounds that it would “discourage the open and honest sharing of information and discussion in writing”.

The Challenge entered administration on 27 November, just months after losing a £60m contract with the trust to provide places on the NCS scheme.

A legal claim against the NCS Trust was filed by The Challenge in October amid claims and counter-claims about the reasons for the relationship between the two organisations ending.

The FOI request from Third Sector asked for any correspondence between the DCMS and The Challenge between 27 October 2019 and 28 November 2019 regarding the latter’s financial problems to be made available.

The request also asked for any correspondence between 27 October 2019 and 28 November 2019 between the DCMS and the NCS Trust regarding the financial problems at The Challenge to be made available.

Third Sector made the FOI request on 15 January and the decision was delayed on 11 February to consider whether any of the available information should be withheld from publication.

In a letter dated 9 March, Third Sector has been told that the information is being withheld on the grounds of effective conduct of public affairs, commercial interests and information provided in confidence.

“The release of the requested information would make public our free and frank exchanges with third parties about the litigation between the NCS Trust and The Challenge, and frank reflections on The Challenge having been put into administration,” the letter says.

“To release the requested documents would discourage the open and honest sharing of information and discussion in writing. It is not in the public interest to reduce the likelihood of open and frank conversations between DCMS and other public bodies and third parties.”

It adds that commercially sensitive information would also have been disclosed if the FOI request had been successful, which the DCMS said could damage confidence in the department and discourage information being shared with the government in future.

The letter acknowledges that there are arguments in favour of accepting the request on the grounds of transparency, especially in how public money is spent, but says they were outweighed by the arguments against.

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