Joint ventures between the public and private sectors are increasingly common. They are often a focus for vigorous political debate over issues such as the costs involved, the savings to the public purse, the profit to the private sector partner, and allegations of conflicts of interest. While those are political arguments on which Tribunals take no view, they do point to the significant public interests that are engaged when considering access to information. So said the Tribunal in David Orr v IC and Avon and Somerset Police Authority (EA/2012/0077), a recent decision notable for grappling with access to information about such a public/private joint venture.
South West One Limited (“SW1”) is a company formed in 2007 as a joint venture by three West country public authorities (together owning 25% of the company) and IBM (75%) to create for their own use and promote and sell to other authorities IT support systems of various kinds. Given its membership of the board of SW1, the second respondent police authority held minutes of its board meetings. The requester asked for that information. The police authority refused, relying on ss. 41 (actionable breach of confidence) and 43(2) (prejudice to commercial interests) of FOIA. An important feature here was that the joint venture agreement contained confidentiality clauses, including one providing that “each of the parties… shall hold in confidence… any financial or other information in respect of the company or the business”. The Commissioner upheld the refusal, finding no evidence that the agreements were being used to circumvent FOIA improperly.
The Tribunal agreed. It rejected the requester’s argument that SW1 should be treated as a public authority for FOIA and EIR purposes. It also upheld reliance on s. 41. It found that redactions would not suffice to remove confidentiality:
“… removal of the name of the targeted purchaser might not conceal its identity from well – informed readers. More fundamentally, board minutes are, by their nature, confidential information. They record disagreements and minority opinions. They should frankly describe the inner workings of the company, whenever significant issues are discussed. It is important in the shareholders` interests, that board minutes fully reflect what has been transacted.”
As to the prospects of success for a public interest defence to an action for breach of confidence, the Tribunal noted the police authority’s sympathy with the requester’s position: “any loss of transparency or “democratic deficit” arising from the creation of SW1 was an inevitable consequence of joint ventures involving public and private sector entities working together through a limited company.”
The Tribunal approached the public interest defence as follows (paragraph 32):
“We have regard, on the one hand, to what is already in the public domain and, on the other, to the undoubted importance of transparency in the operation of joint ventures, in so far as that is consistent with the proper commercial interests of the company thereby created, here SW1. If a joint venture company has been formed for the specific purpose of frustrating the duties of disclosure enacted in FOIA; if public funds are being needlessly squandered in a badly – managed business; if serious conflicts of interest are or may be distorting the company`s operations, then there may be a strong case for disclosing information which reveals such facts.”
None of those concerns arose here, and an action for breach of confidence would not be defeated.
Similar considerations meant that reliance on s. 43(2) would also succeed here. On this issue, the Tribunal observed (paragraph 37) that even where a joint ventures is between public authorities alone (i.e. without the involvement of a private sector partner), the case for reliance on s. 43(2) may be equally strong.
For further analysis of this case, see the Local Government Lawyer.
Anya Proops represented the police authority.