The Tribunal’s recent decision in Makin v IC (EA/2010/0080 & 81) looks at the application of s. 35 FOIA, the qualified exemption for the formulation and development of government policy, in circumstances where the policy in question was effected through parliamentary legislation. In particular, the requested information concerned the proposal in what was then the Legal Services Bill to continue the exemption of government lawyers from professional regulation, including the requirement to pay for a practising certificate.
The Tribunal considered the application of subsections 1(a), (2) and (4) of s. 35.
It had no hesitation in confirming that s. 35(1)(a) was engaged, relying on the well-established breadth of terms such as “relates to”. For the purposes of s. 35(2), the Tribunal found that no “statistical information” (a working definition of which was taken from the Ministry of Justice guidance of May 2008) was involved.
As regards s. 35(4) – the subsection concerning factual information used to inform decision-making – the Tribunal found that this subsection “should apply where it was relatively obvious that what was being provided was factual information for the purpose of informing the decision–taker on the background”. In adopting this approach, it applied the guidance from the leading case of DWP v Information Commission (EA/2006/0040), where the Tribunal held that, on the spectrum between pure advice and pure fact, “where the information is firstly, so inextricably connected to the deliberative material that it is difficult to distinguish and secondly, where the vast weight of material is non-factual information, we consider Parliament did not intend the sub-section to apply”.
An important point from this case is the Tribunal’s finding that whenever s. 35 is under consideration, public authorities and the IC must consider whether s. 35(4) applies and if so what affect it has on the public interest balancing test. This had not been done in this case.
As to the public interest, a crucial issue was (as is usual with s. 35 cases), when the policy formulation had come to an end. Answer in this case: the date of Royal Assent given to the bill embodying the policy, namely 30 March 2007. In this case, one of the internal reviews was only completed well after this date – but the Tribunal held that the latest relevant date for assessing the public interest was the date when the review ought to have been completed, in accordance with the Code of Practice. This was well before Royal Assent, meaning that the public interest factors applied as if the policy were still in the process of formulation.
In the event, apart from two pieces of information, the Tribunal found that the public interest favoured the maintenance of the exemption. In so doing, it “took the view that the efficacy of the Parliamentary legislative process took precedence in this context… Whilst s. 35 was not aimed directly at protecting the role of Parliament, insofar as Government policy in relation to legislation underpins this particular role of Parliament, they were intertwined”.
A final interesting point is that the Tribunal firmly endorsed the IC’s flexibility to decide that, although information should have been disclosed at the time, it nevertheless ought not to be disclosed due to fresh circumstances that have arisen since the decision of the public authority. In so doing, the Tribunal relied on obiter dicta from the High Court’s decision in Office of Government Commerce v Information Commissioner  3 W.L.R. 67 (at paragraph 98).