Board minutes of a public/private joint venture confidential and commercially sensitive

October 11th, 2012 by Robin Hopkins

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.

Robin Hopkins

Chagos Refugees Group in the First-Tier Tribunal: some key points

September 24th, 2012 by Robin Hopkins

The Chagos Archipelago forms part of the British Indian Ocean Territory (“BIOT”). In the late 1960s and early 1970s, the inhabitants of the Chagos Islands were required to leave those islands. At or around that time, a US military base was established on Diego Garcia, the largest of the Chagos Islands. The removal of the “Chagossians” has been a matter of considerable political and media debate, as well as complex legal proceedings. Two legal challenges are ongoing: Chagos Islanders v UK before the European Court of Human Rights, and Bancoult (No 3) before the domestic courts.

In 1999, the then Foreign Secretary commissioned a feasibility study concerning the possible resettlement of some of the islands. A preliminary study was conducted, followed a “phase 2B” study conducted by external consultants. The final report of the phase 2B study was made public. There was some ministerial correspondence about the studies.

In April 2010, representatives of the Chagossians sought information from the Foreign & Commonwealth Office about these studies. In particular, they asked for any draft versions of the phase 2B study (and any accompanying reports), as well as related ministerial correspondence.

The FCO disclosed some information, but withheld one note to a minister (Baroness Amos). As regards the draft reports, it claimed that – if these existed at the time of the request – they were held by the external consultants who authored them. The FCO maintained that the consultants did not hold that information “on behalf of” the FCO for the purposes of the Environmental Information Regulations 2004. The Commissioner upheld the FCO’s position.

The Tribunal (chaired by Andrew Bartlett QC) upheld the Chagossians’ appeal in part. A disclaimer to the following analysis: I appeared for the Information Commissioner. The post below is not a commentary on the case, but (with my Panopticon hat on) I highlight some of the points of general interest to FOIA and EIR practitioners. For a broader commentary on the case, see the excellent post from David Hart QC on One Crown Office Row’s UK Human Rights Blog.

The Tribunal in Chagos Refugees Group in Mauritius and Chagos Social Committee (Seychelles) v IC and FCO (EA/2011/0300) agreed with the FCO that information held by the consultants was not, at the date of the request, held “on behalf of the FCO” for EIR purposes. The Tribunal applied the guidance on the approach to “held” from University of Newcastle v IC and BUAV [2011] UKUT 185 (AAC), [2011] 2 Info LR 54 (see paragraphs 59-67). Generally, whether information is “held” will be a question of fact, but the Tribunal added that “we would also wish to qualify the proposition in McBride v IC and Ministry of Justice (EA/2007/0105) that whether information is held on behalf of a public authority is “simply a question of fact”. In some cases it will be important to determine the exact nature of the legal relationship between a person holding information and the public authority, or to determine the legal structure pursuant to which information was created and held” (paragraph 61).

The Tribunal analysed both the factual and legal relationship between the FCO and the consultants in reaching its conclusion. Its decision should be given careful attention when considering whether information is “held on behalf of” a public authority.

On the adequacy of the FCO’s own searches, the Tribunal said this at paragraph 70:

“… we consider it is relevant to draw attention also to the Tribunal’s remarks in the context of a FOIA request in Muttitt v IC (EA/2011/0036) (31 January 2012) at [68], to the effect that a search should be conducted intelligently and reasonably, and that this does not mean it should be an exhaustive search conducted in unlikely places: those who request information under FOIA will prefer a good search, delivering most relevant information, to a hypothetical exhaustive search delivering none, because of  the cost limit.”

As to the Baroness Amos note, the Chagossians were largely successful in their appeal: disclosure was ordered, bar a few redactions. In its analysis, the Tribunal considered the time at which the public interest was to be assessed. It has become almost trite in FOIA and EIR cases that the answer to this question is “at the time of the request or, at the latest, the date at which the public authority ought to have responded”. This question is, however, not altogether settled. In this case, the Tribunal was content to assess matters up to the date of the conclusion of the FCO’s internal review (see paragraphs 22-29). On a similar point, the UpperTribunal in Evans (see my earlier post on this) by no means considered it beyond doubt that matters should only be assessed at or shortly after the date of the request.

The Tribunal considered that weighty public interests would be served by disclosure of the contents of the Baroness Amos note, despite that being only a small amount of information. At paragraph 112 it said this:

“The amount of information in a potentially disclosable document is without doubt a material matter to take into account. At the same time, it is important not to discount unduly the significance, in the public interest, of the disclosure of small amounts of information. Publicly useful freedom of information requests are generally limited in scope. If too broad, they face the obstacle under FOIA of the costs limit, and under the EIR of the proportionality requirement. If the Tribunal were to take an unduly minimalist view of the value of the publication of relatively small amounts of information on matters of considerable legitimate public interest, this would materially reduce the effectiveness of the legislation. We would regard this as tending to conflict with the general purpose of  the legislation, as seen in the authoritative remarks in Sugar v BBC [2012] UKSC 4 at [76]-[77], which in our view apply with equal force to the EIR, particularly in view of the presumption in favour of disclosure found in EIR regulation 12(2).”

This outweighed the public interest in maintaining the exception for internal communications. Timing was key to the ‘safe space’ argument advanced by the FCO and the Commissioner. The Tribunal endorsed the approach taken in the Department of Health (NHS risk registers) case, whereby policy formulation can “dip in and out” of the need for a safe space. The Tribunal in this case concluded that (paragraph 123):

“We acknowledge the prospect that at some future date – perhaps in 2013, perhaps later – after the final conclusion of the two pending pieces of litigation, the resettlement policy is likely to be the subject of reconsideration. In our view that was at all material times, and remains today, a very weak reason for maintaining the confidentiality of a document written in entirely different circumstances in 2002.”

Robin Hopkins

HRH the Prince of Wales: advocacy of an ordinary man

September 19th, 2012 by Robin Hopkins

The Upper Tribunal’s judgment in Evans v IC and Others (Seven Government Departments) [2012] UKUT 313 (AAC) (Mr Justice Walker, Professor John Angel and Suzanne Cosgrave), handed down yesterday, has received extensive media coverage – unsurprisingly so, given the subject matter (Prince Charles’ correspondence with government departments) and the requester (Rob Evans of the Guardian). The judgment is stupendously long (65 pages, plus 3 open annexes). Here are the salient points.

The issues

Mr Evans made requests in April 2005 for correspondence between Prince Charles and seven government departments. Crucially, this was confined to correspondence involving “advocacy” on the part of Prince Charles, i.e. information on (a) “identifying charitable need and setting up and driving forward charities to meet it”, and/or (b) the promotion of Prince Charles’ views on various issues. It was described as “argumentative correspondence”. The interaction with government first revealed in the Prince Charles-approved biography by Jonathan Dimbleby published in November 1994.

Disclosure was refused on the basis of a number of exemptions under FOIA: ss. 37(1) (communications with Her Majesty, with other members of the Royal Family or the Royal Household), 40(2) (presonal data) and 41 (actionable breach of confidence). Insofar as it comprised environmental information, the requested information was refused on the basis of reg. 12(5)(f) EIR (adverse affect on the interests of the person who provided the information).

The relevant date for the Upper Tribunal’s assessment was 40 days after Mr Evans’ requests for interal reviews of these refusals, i.e. 28 February 2006. At that stage, the relevant part of s. 37(1) was a qualified rather than an absolute exemption.

The Upper Tribunal found in Mr Evans’ favour with respect to all of the exemptions: the public interest favoured disclosure (in the case of the qualified and EIR exemptions), disclosure of the relevant personal data would not breach a data protection principle, and any action for breach of confidence would be defeated by a public interest defence.

The crucial issue: advocacy correspondence and the education/apprenticeship convention

The case for withholding the information was to stand or fall with the analysis of the relevant constitutional conventions (practices which are non-legal but fundamental to the UK’s parliamentary democracy) concerning communications between the monarchy and government. The Upper Tribunal analysed these conventions in depth, and addressed the crucial issue of the extent to which they were relevant to the “advocacy” correspondence in dispute.

Two conventions are extremely important. The cardinal convention is that the monarch acts on advice. The tripartite convention is that the monarch is entitled to be consulted, to encourage and to warn her ministers. The Upper Tribunal was satisfied that “there is ample reason to justify the principle that the internal operation of these two conventions is not revealed, at least until after a long time has passed” (paragraph 87). These two conventions, however, apply only to the sovereign – not to the heir.

The pivotal convention relied on in this case was the “education convention”, whereby the heir to the throne is to be instructed in the business of government. The Upper Tribunal preferred this label to the proposed alternative of “apprenticeship convention”: the latter term assumed what it had to prove, namely that Prince Charles was through the disputed correspondence practising the skills required of him when he becomes the sovereign, rather than some other skills. Also, the work of apprentices is overseen by masters; Prince Charles is thus not like an apprentice or, for that matter, a pupil barrister (the Upper Tribunal noted) insofar as he is conducting his advocacy correspondence.

Until relatively recently, the education convention was, in constitutional terms, “little more than a footnote” (paragraph 89). Nonetheless, it was important, and the Upper Tribunal’s judgment did not entitle Mr Evans to information caught by that convention.

The fundamental issue here was that, contrary to the case for the government departments (who advanced the novel case that the education convention encompassed all information of this kind) the advocacy correspondence did not come within the education convention. The Upper Tribunal considered that the alleged constitutionally-important confidentiality of such advocacy correspondence could not be reconciled with the disclosures in the Dimbleby biography.

Ultimately (paragraph 99):

“The plain facts are that what Prince Charles is doing is not prompted by a desire to become more familiar with the business of government, and simply is not addressing what his role would be as king…  they all have as their context Prince Charles’s strong belief that certain action on the part of government is needed.”

See also paragraph 106:

“… there is an overwhelming difficulty in suggesting that there is good reason for regarding advocacy correspondence by Prince Charles as falling within a constitutional convention… it is the constitutional role of the monarch, not the heir to the throne, to encourage or warn government. Accordingly it is fundamental that advocacy by Prince Charles cannot have constitutional status… the communication of encouragement or warning to government has constitutional status only when done by the monarch.”

The key conclusion: Prince Charles’ advocacy correspondence has no special status favouring non-disclosure

The Upper Tribunal was clear that, for Prince Charles as for anyone else seeking to advance charitable causes or promote views through correspondencw with government, such advocacy correspondence would generally be disclosable. See paragraph 7:

“Confidential interaction between government ministers and others, in a context where those others are seeking to advance the work of charities or to promote views, would generally be disclosable – especially where those others have privileged access to ministers. Our conclusion is that special factors concerning Prince Charles will not – under the legislation governing the requests in this case – generally result in a different consequence.”

In other words, Prince Charles’ advocacy correspondence is to be treated in the same way as anyone else’s. See paragraph 210:

 “We are not persuaded that they warrant giving correspondence between ministers and Prince Charles greater protection from disclosure than would be afforded to correspondence with others who have dealings with government in a context where those others are seeking to advance the work of charities or to promote views.”

The result was that the public interest/fairness factors favouring non-disclosure were not especially weighty, at least in that they did not have any constitutional significance. This judgment is also the first binding confirmation that, as with the EIR, the public interests protected by each separate FOIA exemption are to be aggregated, and the cumulative public interest in non-disclosure is to be weighed against that in disclosure (see paragraph 207).

The public interest in disclosure

So, when analysing the public interest/fairness case for withholding the information, Prince Charles was to be treated like an ordinary person. Prince Charles is, however, not like an ordinary person, given his position and influence. The Upper Tribunal found there to be great public interest in how he sought to wield that influence through his advocacy correspondence. It also made a number of important observations on ‘general’ (i.e. non-case-specific) factors favouring disclosure, and commented on the relevance of media interest. The most notable public interest points are below.

The Upper Tribunal firmly endorsed the strength of the public interest in transparency on important governmental matters generally, irrespective of whether the particular information does or does not answer any questions of specific concern. See paragraph 133 (my emphasis):

“… we think it important that the strength of these general interests should be acknowledged rather than minimised. It is because other methods of achieving accountability and transparency have had only limited success that freedom of information has been agreed by signatories to the Aarhus convention as regards environmental matters, and enacted more generally throughout the United Kingdom as a whole. When disputed information concerns important aspects of the working of government, the interests in accountability and transparency will be not merely of general importance, but of particular strength.”

On a similar note, the Upper Tribunal was clear that an informed debate was something of great importance, regardless of whether the information helped dispel or confirm any particular suspicions about how Prince Charles wielded influence. See paragraph 151:

“It seems to us that the perception that Prince Charles exercises special influence stems from the biography. As to whether it would either be confirmed or dispelled by disclosure of the disputed information, this too seems to us to miss the point: the public interest lies in having an informed debate.”

Moving on to the particular nature of the information in dispute, there was strong public interest in transparency of Prince Charles’ advocacy correspondence, particularly given that he seeks to conduct that correspondence in a way that represents the interests of (at least some of) the public. See paragraphs 141-142, and 152:

“The fact that Prince Charles corresponds with and meets ministers, on confidential terms, is in the public domain: but without the disclosure of actual examples of the correspondence, it is difficult for the public to understand what this actually means in practice… whether this country should remain a monarchy is of course a legitimate matter of public debate. More generally, debate about the extent and nature of interaction between government and the royal family, and how the monarchy fits in to our constitution, goes to the heart of understanding the constitutional underpinning of our current system of government. We conclude that these are all important and weighty considerations in favour of disclosure.

We agree with the Departments that when it is said that Prince Charles speaks “on behalf of us all” that reflects that he writes to ministers on what he believes is in the public interest. This, however, does not answer Mr Evans’s point that it seems incongruous that the public should not know about it.”

As to the public interest defence to a breach of personal confidence, the Upper Tribunal considered it important that Prince Charles voluntarily conducts himself as a public figure. See paragraph 202:

“It would be unreal to contend that Prince Charles is not a public figure. Neither the Commissioner nor the Departments advance such a contention. There is, however, in our view a strong air of unreality about their contention that his birth gave him no choice as to whether to engage in advocacy correspondence. The analogy made by Mr Fordham with a hereditary peer was in that regard compelling: some may feel impelled to intervene for the public good as they see it, either publicly or behind the scenes. Others may not. Applying the Strasbourg case-law we see no basis for saying that when Prince Charles does so his actions must be characterised as “truly personal.” On the contrary they are, on his own description, all motivated by a desire to put the “Great” back in Great Britain.”

Media interest was a relevant public interest factor, but the Upper Tribunal was careful to distinguish sensationalism from serious reporting. See paragraph 157 (my emphasis):

“The media interest in Prince Charles’s interaction with ministers is substantial.  It seems to us that this is not a factor which in itself necessarily favours disclosure.  What is relevant is that there is a real debate, generating widespread public interest, on a matter which goes to the heart of our constitution.  Sensationalism merely for the sake of it will not generally be in the public interest.  The media accounts we have seen have, on occasion, had sensationalist aspects.  For the most part, however, the media reporting is of a kind which has focused on the substance.  It is relevant when assessing the public interest to note the extent to which, over the relevant period, there have been media reports of this kind.”

The Upper Tribunal was not persuaded that disclosure would have a “chilling effect” on correspondence between the Prince and the government. Nor did it consider it relevant that the Prince’s advocacy was not motivated by any desire for commercial gain.

A final important point on the public interest balance concerned the argument (advanced relatively frequently) that disclosure of this information would engender misconceptions or misunderstandings on the part of the public. Again, the Upper Tribunal was not persuasive. It said this at paragraph 188 (my emphasis):

“There is, as it seems to us, a short answer to all the various ways in which the Departments have sought to rely on dangers of “misperception” on the part of the public. It is this: the essence of our democracy is that criticism within the law is the right of all, no matter how wrongheaded those on high may consider the criticism to be.

The future: ‘interesting questions’

Given its assessment of important constitutional principles (not only as regards the heir to the throne, but as regards democratic engagement more generally), this judgment is a very important development in FOIA jurisprudence.

However, s. 37 is now largely an absolute exemption (thanks to the changes to FOIA made by the Constitutional Reform and Governance Act; as an aside, see the unsuccessful attempt to obtain information on how those changes came about: Pragnell v IC and Ministry of Justice (EA/2011/0279)). Does this mean Evans is of largely historic interest when it comes to information concerning the monarchy? The answer is, probably not. First, some requests for information made prior to the CRAG changes remain to be resolved. Secondly, the EIR have of course not been correspondingly changed – which raises what the Upper Tribunal considered “interesting questions”. “Environmental information” has been sought from members of the royal family in the past: Bruton v IC and Duchy of Cornwall (EA/2010/0182)) was one such case, and one imagines it will not be the last. The Evans principles may therefore be highly relevant in future cases.

11KBW’s Jonathan Swift QC, Julian Milford and Tim Pitt-Payne QC appeared in this case.

Robin Hopkins

The Equitable Life collapse: strong public interests needed to trump s. 30

September 14th, 2012 by Robin Hopkins

Wynn v IC and Serious Fraud Office (EA/2011/0185) concerned the dramatic closure in late 2000 of the insurer Equitable Life. Both the Ombudsman and the Penrose Inquiry examined the collapse and published their reports. Attempts to compensate those who lost money have been pursued through the courts and considered by parliament.

The Serious Fraud Office became involved to consider whether any criminal charges should be brought against those involved in the collapse. Pursuant to its functions under the Criminal Justice Act 1987, it analysed the material and took legal advice in order to decide whether or not to commence a criminal investigation. In effect, it investigated whether or not to investigate. In December 2005, the SFO announced that it would not commence an investigation.

Mr Wynn was dissatisfied with that decision. Eventually, in 2009, he asked the SFO for all of the information it held on Equitable Life. It provided him with some information – importantly, this included (pursuant to a direction from the ICO) a ‘vetting note’, which summarised the SFO’s reasoning on why successful prosecutions were unlikely. The SFO withheld the remainder of the voluminous information it held, relying on s. 12 (cost of compliance) for some it and ss. 30(1) (investigations) and 42 (legal professional privilege) for the rest. The ICO agreed.

Mr Wynn’s appeal to the Tribunal was dismissed. The Tribunal was satisfied that the s. 12 estimate was reasonable and well evidenced. S. 30(1) was engaged: a preliminary investigation (or, as I have put it above, an investigation into whether to investigate) was an investigation for s. 30(1) purposes nonetheless.

The public interest favoured maintaining that exemption. Case-specific points included the substantial transparency delivered by the Ombudsman and Penrose Inquiry reports and the SFO’s vetting note. There was nothing to suggest that the SFO had got things wrong.

The decision also contains a number of points of more general application. The Tribunal endorsed the account given in Breeze v Information Commissioner (EA/2011/0057) of the concerns protected by s. 30(1): protecting witnesses and informants (including their confidentiality), maintaining the integrity of the prosecution and judicial process, and ensuring that the court remained the sole forum for determining guilt. The ‘safe space’ point was also important: prosecutors need a safe space in which to make their decisions without any fear their frank assessments being publicised too soon after the event.

Notwithstanding the passage of time between the conclusion of that investigation and the request under FOIA, those factors counted very heavily in favour of maintaining the exemption under s. 30(1). The Tribunal endorsed this general proposition from Public Prosecutor of Northern Ireland v IC (EA/2010/0109): “in order for disclosure to be ordered in such cases public interest factors of at least equal weight would have to be adduced. A general interest in transparency as to a prosecution authority’s decisions will not be sufficient. Something substantial and particular to the information would be required” (paragraph 35).

The general upshot is that, in recent years, s. 30(1) has grown into a ‘strong’ exemption, i.e. one that requires weighty and particular factors to ‘defeat’. ‘Safe space’ arguments have also fared somewhat better in the prosecution context than the policy-making
context (under s. 35 of FOIA) in Tribunal decisions over the last year or two.

Finally, it is long-established that s. 42(1) is a ‘strong’ exemption, requiring weighty factors if disclosure of privileged information is to ordered. None were forthcoming in Wynn.

Robin Hopkins

The BBC in the Tribunal: not a public authority under the EIR; strong arguments for disclosure of licence fee legal advice

August 17th, 2012 by Robin Hopkins

In Montford v IC and BBC (EA/2009/0114), the appellant had asked the BBC various questions about its expenditure in relation to Cambridge Media and Environment Program, which researched and planned a programme of seminars that had been running since 2005 at which BBC editorial staff discussed issues such as environmental change and world development, with the objective of improving BBC journalism in those areas.

The BBC is a public authority within Schedule 1 of FOIA only within the following parameters: “The British Broadcasting Corporation, in respect of information held the purposes other than those of journalism, art or literature”. The Supreme Court addressed this “derogation” from FOIA in Sugar v BBC [2012] UKSC 4: see our post here. Montford concerned not only the application of Sugar to this request, but also an argument that, given the subject matter of the request and the BBC’s activities, the BBC was a public authority within the meaning of regulation 2 of the EIR.

The Tribunal considered the leading cases on the latter point (Smartsource, Port of London, Network Rail, Bruton) and – applying the multifactorial approach from Smartsource – concluded that the BBC was not a public authority under the EIR. Further, the requested information was not environmental: that requires more than a remote link to the environment, and in the present case there was no link. It was therefore FOIA which applied, and Sugar meant that the requested information fell within the derogation. The BBC therefore did not have to provide it.

The BBC also featured – though not as a party – in another Tribunal decision of late. Crawford v IC and DCMS (EA/2012/0018) concerned the conclusion of the ‘BBC settlement’, ie the funding arrangements (freezing of the licence fee, BBC taking over World Service funding and so on) agreed with extraordinary speed between Jeremy Hunt and BBC Trust chair Michael Lyons in October 2010. The requester – a BBC journalist – sought information about that agreement. By the time of the hearing, the only disputed information was legal advice, which fell within section 42(1) of FOIA. The argument focuses on the public interest.

As readers will be aware, information falling within section 42(1) has very rarely been ordered for disclosure by the Tribunal. One gets the sense from the Tribunal’s decision in Crawford that the appellant here came closer than most to getting the information he sought.  The Tribunal noted the unprecedented speed with which negotiations about matters of great public interest were concluded in 2010. In the circumstances, there were “weighty factors in favour of disclosure of any information which can shed light on how this speedy settlement which affects so many people was reached. In other words there is a significant public interest in transparency and accountability in this case”. The stumbling block, however, was that the disputed legal advice shed only limited light on those concerns. Disclosure was thus not ordered. The Tribunal concluded on a note of sympathy with the requester:

“We would observe that we can understand why Mr Crawford has pursued this matter to a hearing despite disclosure of most of the information originally requested. It seems to us, that despite the exceptional nature of the CSR, the haste of the negotiations and lack of record of what took place means that Mr Crawford has quite understandably had to challenge the DCMS into providing whatever contemporaneous record there might be to help him in his journalist pursuit to provide the public with the facts of this unprecedented Licence Fee Settlement with its far reaching effects.”

Robin Hopkins

Commercial prejudice: the importance of precise and limited redactions

August 17th, 2012 by Robin Hopkins

In the recent decision in UK Coal Mining v IC, Nottinghamshire County Council & Veolia [2012] UKUT 212 AAC, the Upper Tribunal has dismissed an appeal concerned with section 43(2) of FOIA (commercial prejudice): the First-Tier Tribunal (decision EA/2010/0142, on which see our post here) had been entitled to find that only very limited redactions could be made to provisions from a PFI contract for a waste incinerator. Upper Tribunal Judge Wikeley’s decision, while largely fact-specific, illustrates two significant points.

First, appeals against FTT decisions are liable to fail where they are simply attempts to re-run questions of fact and judgment.

Secondly, those seeking to rely on section 43(2) FOIA should be as precise as possible. Sometimes, for example, a clause in a contract might appear commercially sensitive at first glance, but upon closer scrutiny all that really warrants withholding might be the numbers.

The background to the decision is briefly as follows. UK Coal entered into a complex PFI agreement with the Council for an option to lease a former colliery site the site, with Veolia then sub-leasing the site from the Council to operate an incinerator. Upon a request for the contracts, the Commissioner found that regulation 12(5)(e) of the EIR (confidentiality of commercial or industrial information) was engaged, but that the public interest favoured disclosure. Upon what was effectively UK Coal’s appeal, the FTT found that the matter should have dealt with under FOIA rather than the EIR. Section 43(2) was engaged, but the public interest favoured disclosure of at some of the disputed information. Eventually, the Tribunal largely endorsed the Commissioner’s (very limited) redactions, rejecting the much more extensive redactions proposed by UK Coal. UK Coal’s appeal to the Upper Tribunal failed.

As regards challenges to the FTT’s decision, Upper Tribunal Judge Wikeley said that it was important that the FTT’s statement of reasons is read as a whole, rather than highlighting particular phrases and taking them out of their wider context. The FTT had allowed for the redaction of what it called “core financial information”, but this was simply a convenient shorthand not amenable to close textual analysis or to legal challenge per se.

Notably, he said that this of the FTT’s assessment:

“This was a quintessential issue of fact and degree for the tribunal at first instance to determine… The bottom line is that UK Coal is essentially seeking to re-argue questions of fact and judgement which have been litigated and adjudicated upon on their merits by the FTT.“

Judge Wikeley also warned that the caution against relying too heavily on other FTT decisions (see the Upper Tribunal’s decision in LB Camden v IC and Voyias GIA/2986/2011) applies with even greater force to attempts to rely on other decision notices by the ICO (as UK Coal sought to do here).

Turning to the section 43(2) redactions urged by UK Coal, the Upper Tribunal considered these to be “far too wide-ranging” and its arguments unsustainable. Some of the terms it sought to withhold were commonplace to commercial agreements. The FTT had approached its redaction analysis with care and precision, and correctly struck a balance between protecting UK Coal’s proper commercial interests under section 43 while ensuring that other information is disclosed. In some cases, the FTT allowed only for the redaction of figures rather than terms as a whole. This nonetheless ensured that a member of the public would have “no idea as to either the commercial methodology or the key financial and other numerical variables used”.

The Upper Tribunal’s decision cites specific examples of the scope of redactions to commercial terms which the FTT applied and which the Upper Tribunal found to be entirely understandable. The examples merit close attention by those seeking to withhold information in similar cases.

Robin Hopkins

Police Surveillance – New tribunal decision

June 20th, 2012 by Anya Proops

Earlier this month Robin Hopkins blogged on a recent admin court judgment applying Article 8 to the police’s act of retaining data on a protestor (see his post on the Catt case here). This week the Information Tribunal handed down a judgment concerning another aspect of police surveillance, namely the automatic number-plate recognition (ANPR) system, which is now in widespread use across Great Britain. In Mathieson v IC & Devon & Cornwall Constabulary (EA/2010/0174), Mr Mathieson, a Guardian journalist, requested disclosure from the Constabulary of the location of all the ANPR cameras within the area of the Devon & Cornwall Constabulary. The Constabulary refused disclosure on an application of ss. 24 (national security) and 31 (prevention of crime) FOIA. The Commissioner upheld the Constabulary’s refusal notice on the basis that the location information was exempt from disclosure under s. 31. Mr Mathieson appealed against the Commissioner’s decision.

At the hearing before the Tribunal, it was conceded on behalf of Mr Mathieson that, on all the evidence, both ss. 24 and 31 were engaged in respect of the location information. The key issue which the Tribunal was called upon to determine was whether the public interest balance nonetheless weighed in favour of disclosure. In summary, the Tribunal held that the use of the ANPR system by the Constabulary inevitably gave rise to serious civil liberty concerns. This was not least because the system indiscriminately recorded the number-plate of every single vehicle passing before the individual cameras, irrespective of whether the vehicles may be being used as part of a criminal enterprise or as a result of individuals innocently and lawfully going about their day to day business. However, it nonetheless went on to find that the public interest balance weighed firmly in favour of maintaining the exemptions. This was because, on all the available evidence, it was clear that revealing the location of the individual cameras within Devon and Cornwall would have enhanced the ability of criminals, including terrorists, effectively to bypass the ANPR system, thus helping them to evade detection and prosecution.

In the course of its decision, the Tribunal held that: ‘there is always likely to be a substantial public interest in maintaining the exemptions we are concerned with, in particular that provided by section 24 which relates to national security’ (§8). It also held that, whilst disclosure of the location information may only have tipped the balance slightly in favour of the criminals, not least because they may in any event have been able to identify the cameras through their own efforts, that was sufficient to result in a situation where the location information must be treated as exempt (§10).

Notably, a separate question was raised during the course of the appeal as to whether the information captured by the ANPR system amounted to ‘personal data’ in the hands of the Constabulary. Mr Mathieson and the Commissioner submitted that it did. The Constabulary disputed this conclusion. Ultimately, the Tribunal took the view that it did not need to resolve this dispute for the purposes of determining the appeal.

I am limited in what I can say about this case, having appeared on behalf of the Commissioner. However, it is clear from the judgment that there is an abiding issue as to the legality of the ANPR system and, in particular, whether it unjustifiably interferes with the right to privacy under Article 8 and/or with the data subject’s rights under the DPA. Whilst this is a nettle which the Tribunal itself considered it did not need to grasp in the circumstances of the Mathieson appeal, there can be little doubt but that it is a nettle which will be subject to judicial examination in the future.

Anya Proops

Right to withdraw children from sex education classes

June 1st, 2012 by Robin Hopkins

Under s. 405 of the Education Act 1996, any parent has the right to withdraw a child from sex education at a maintained school up to the age of 19, except to the extent that the subject is covered in a science lesson that forms part of the national curriculum. On 5 November 2009, the Labour government announced that a proposed new bill, the Children Schools and Families Bill would include a provision that would remove a parent’s right of withdrawal once a child had reached the age of 15 years. The next day, the Family Education Trust made a FOIA request for all correspondence, notes and reports on this issue. This was refused. The proposed legislative change was abandoned when the Coalition government came to power in May 2010. The requester made the same request again, seeking only information created prior to May 2010, i.e. under the last government. The Department for Education again refused, continuing to rely on s. 35(1)(a) of FOIA (formulation or development of government policy). The requester’s appeal to the Tribunal concerned the public interest balancing test only. The appeal in Family Education Trust v IC and Department for Education (EA/2011/0244) was dismissed.

Three points are of interest as regards the public interest in maintaining the exemption for the formulation and development of government policy.

First, the appellant argued that there had been a lack of transparency about this decision. The Tribunal thought this a valid type of argument in general: it could “envisage cases in which public dissatisfaction with the rigour or comprehensiveness of a public consultation may add weight to the public interest in having information disclosed”. This did not, however, have purchase on the facts of this case.

Secondly, what of the fact that the relevant provision had been abandoned during the “wash up” of outstanding legislative business immediately before the May 2010 election? The appellant said this meant no ‘safe space’ was then needed, as policy development on this issue was no longer live (this was raised as a public interest argument, but it seems to me it could equally well be an argument against the engagement of s. 35(1)(a) in the first place). Again, on the facts this point did not have force, as the issue remained live after the election. The Tribunal did, however, add this note of caution:

“It does not follow, from our conclusion on this aspect of the case, that the period during which the “safe space” must be protected will be without limit. Some elements of the public debate on sex and relationship education may be perennially controversial but, in the event of a further information request being made at any time in the future, it will be necessary for the Department to consider the state of policy development at that time.”

Thirdly, the Department also argued that there was a public interest in protecting from disclosure contributions made by those consulted on policy matters in this area. The Tribunal gave this factor less weight, “in that those submitting views with the intention of influencing policy decisions by government should in most cases accept that the consultation process will be conducted in public view. We nevertheless accept that a degree of protection may be required in the context of a particularly contentious issue, such as the right of withdrawal and that, had we been inclined to order to disclosure generally, it might have been appropriate to make special provision for some elements of the consultation process.”

Robin Hopkins

Wheat and chaff: advice to ministers on answering parliamentary questions

June 1st, 2012 by Robin Hopkins

Some years ago, the government commissioned the Tasker Report into the conduct of senior managers in the prison service, which had given rise to extensive and adverse publicity. A number of parliamentary questions were asked about the report. As is the usual practice, civil servants prepared advice for use by the prisons minister, Maria Eagle, in responding to those questions.  Kikugawa v IC and MOJ (EA/2011/0267) involved a request for copies of those advice notes. The MOJ refused to disclose them, relying on s. 36(2)(b) FOIA (prejudice to the free and frank provision of advice or exchange of views), the prerequisite for which is the issuing of a ‘reasonable opinion’ by the ‘qualified person’ (here, the minister) as to the likelihood of those prejudices.

The Tribunal found the exemption to be engaged. Points to note as regards the ‘reasonableness’ of the opinion this, which points towards a margin of discretion:

“The opinion must be her opinion so she cannot simply sign a submission without reading it, though nobody suggests that she did so. Deciding to approve a submission by flipping a coin (an example given by the ICO) does not fail the test because the opinion adopted is unreasonable but because the minister formed no opinion at all. The same principle would apply, though perhaps less vividly, where the minister received a submission advocating this opinion which offered no reason, however slight, to form it. Nobody can truly form an opinion where he or she is deprived of any shred of information on the issues involved. Provided the opinion is formed by the minister, however, it may be debatable how far the Tribunal is entitled to inquire into the mental processes adopted. A degree of caution may be appropriate when approaching the supposed requirement for a “reasonable opinion reasonably formed”.

The requester said the opinion had been biased. The Tribunal disagreed:

“The test is reasonableness, not the apparent objectivity of the QP. If the QP has formed an untenable opinion because of a conflict of interest, then the opinion does not satisfy s.36(2), not because it is the opinion of a biased QP but because it is unreasonable. In fact, the complaint that it is the minister concerned with the PQs whose opinion is sought is unrealistic since it is she who is by far the best placed to form a judgement on the matter. Equally, it is hard to see how officials who had no involvement whatever with the PQs or the background facts could provide an informed submission.”

The requester alleged that the submissions to the minister had been “bogus”, false or “deliberately misleading”. Although the Tribunal noted colourfully that “it is inevitable that, in the stream of advice and comment passed to ministers in the process of answering hundreds of PQs there will be chaff as well as wheat”, it did not find the requester’s allegations to be well founded.

Finally, this was one of those (increasingly rare, it seems) cases where the Tribunal saw force in the ‘chilling effect’ argument:

“The Tribunal is frequently pressed by government departments with claims as to the “chilling effect” on frank communication of disclosure of internal discussions and reports. The Tribunal is not always impressed by them. Here, though, we are dealing with a vital and sensitive interface between minister and civil servant. This is an area of government where the need for confidentiality is clear because the points that need to be made to a minister may be based on evidence of varying strength and may involve strong criticism of the questioner or another member or third party. The official offering advice may be understandably reluctant to make them public, whilst properly concerned that they should be before the minister. It is for the minister to decide what should be used, what rejected, what is too tenuous to be relied upon.”

For all these reasons, the Tribunal firmly rejected the appeal.

Robin Hopkins

CHILLING EFFECT, SAFE SPACE AND THE NHS RISK REGISTERS

April 15th, 2012 by Robin Hopkins

In a recent post, Panopticon brought you, hot-off-the-press, the Tribunal’s decision in the much-publicised case of Department of Health v IC, Healey and Cecil (EA/2011/0286 & EA/2011/0287). Somewhat less hot-off-the-press are my observations. This is a very important decision, both for its engagement with the legislative process and for its analysis of the public interest with respect to section 35(1)(a) of FOIA (formulation or development of government policy) – particularly the “chilling effect” argument. At the outset, it is important to be clear about what was being requested and when.

Risk registers in general

The DOH prepared two “risk registers” documenting the risks associated with implementing the “far-reaching and highly controversial” NHS reforms under what was then the Health and Social Care Bill. The Tribunal heard that risk registers are used widely across government for project planning. They provide snapshots (rather than detailed discussions) combining the probability of and outcomes from any given risk associated with the proposed reform; risks are then classified in red, amber or green terms. According to Lord Gus O’Donnell, who gave evidence in support of the DOH’s case, risk registers are the most important tool used across government to formulate and develop policy for risk management in advising ministers. John Healey MP, one of the requesters in this case, said that he was a minister for ten years and was never shown such a register.

The requests and these particular registers

On 29 November 2010, Mr Healey requested a copy of the “Transition Risk Register” (TRR). This, the Tribunal found, was largely concerned with operational matters; it aimed to identify implementation risks. By this stage, the government had already published its White Paper on the reforms. Crucially, the Tribunal’s finding was that the broad policy decision had been taken by the time of the White Paper. The subsequent consultation was largely directed at how best to implement the White Paper. In response to that consultation, the government adhered to the vast majority of its plans, and set about implementing them early where possible.

On 28 February 2011, the second requester, Nicholas Cecil, asked for a copy of the Strategic Risk Register (“SRR”). This was concerned with potential policy decisions for ministers. By that time, the Bill had been laid before Parliament. Parliament’s reaction meant that, in a number of respects, ministers were called upon to rethink policy decisions surrounding the NHS reforms.

Both requests were refused. The IC ordered that they be disclosed. The Tribunal upheld the IC’s decision on the TRR, but allowed the DOH’s appeal on the SRR.

The approach to section 35(1)(a) of FOIA

Before the Tribunal, it was accepted that this exemption was engaged with respect to both registers. The Tribunal considered that the need for a safe space for policy-making was not linear. Its analysis is worth quoting in detail:

“We are prepared to accept that there is no straight line between formulation and development and delivery and implementation. We consider that during the progress of a government introducing a new policy that the need for a safe space will change during the course of a Bill. For example while policy is being formulated at a time of intensive consultation during the initial period when policy is formed and finalised the need for a safe space will be at its highest. Once the policy is announced this need will diminish but while the policy is being debated in Parliament it may be necessary for the government to further develop the policy, and even undertake further public consultation, before the Bill reflects the government’s final position on the new policy as it receives the Royal Assent. Therefore there may be a need to, in effect, dip in and out of the safe space during this passage of time so government can continue to consider its options. There may also come a time in the life of an Act of Parliament when the policy is reconsidered and a safe space is again needed. Such a need for policy review and development may arise from implementation issues which in themselves require Ministers to make decisions giving rise to policy formulation and development. We therefore understand why the UCL report describes the process as a “continuous circle” certainly until a Bill receives the Royal Assent. However the need for safe spaces during this process depends on the facts and circumstances in each case. Critically the strength of the public interest for maintaining the exemption depends on the public interest balance at the time the safe space is being required.

We would also observe that where a Bill is a Framework Bill we can understand that even after it receives the Royal Assent there will be a need for safe spaces for policy formulation as secondary legislation is developed. We note in this case that the Bill, although suggested by DOH to be a Framework Bill, is prescriptive of economic regulation, and cannot be described purely in framework terms.”

Public interest factors in favour of maintaining the exemption: safe space and chilling effect

One of the DOH’s witnesses contended that the registers allowed a safe space for officials to “think the unthinkable”, but the Tribunal found it difficult to see how the registers – particularly the TRR – could be described in that way: “the TRR identifies the sorts of risks one would expect to see in such a register from a competent Department”. Nonetheless, the Tribunal accepted the strong public interest in there being a safe space for policy formulation.

The main argument concerned the chilling effect, which Lord O’Donnell addressed in his evidence. The Tribunal considered that there was no actual evidence of the chilling effect following other instances of comparable disclosures (e.g. following OGC v IC (EA/2006/2068 & 80), or following a 2008 disclosure of a risk register concerning a third runway at Heathrow). Similarly, a 2010 report from UCL’s Constitution Unit concluded there to be little evidence for the chilling effect.

Overall, the Tribunal cautioned against treating qualified exemptions as absolute ones. It said:

“We would observe that the DOH’s position expressed in evidence is tantamount to saying that there should be an absolute exemption for risk registers at the stages the registers were requested in this case. Parliament has not so provided. S.35 (and s.36) are qualified exemptions subject to a public interest test, which means that there is no absolute guarantee that information will not be disclosed, however strong the public interest in maintaining the exemption.”

Factors in favour of disclosure

The DOH’s witnesses sought to play down the significance of the NHS reforms in comparison to other important reforms implemented by government. Mr Healey, however, argued that they were exceptional. The Tribunal agreed with him.

It also noted that the Conservatives’ manifesto for the 2010 election had promised an end to top-down NHS reorganisation, but that its NHS White Paper then appeared to propose exactly such a reorganisation. It was not preceded by a Green Paper. It was clear to the Tribunal that the White Paper was published in a hurry and to much public concern. Given the scale and controversial nature of the reforms, transparency of decision-making was very important.

The Tribunal found the public interest balance to be very difficult in this case. Judging the matters at the time of the DOH’s refusal notices, the Tribunal concluded that the balance favoured disclosure of the TRR but not the SRR – due to the differences in the nature of the registers and the timing of the requests (see above).

Section 40(2) of FOIA and civil servants’ names

Finally, the Tribunal also considered the DOH’s reliance on section 40(2) to redact the names of a number of civil servants on the grounds of their being insufficiently senior for disclosure to be fair. The Tribunal ordered the disclosure of the majority of these names. In so doing, it focused on the substance of what each individual did with respect to this particular information – rather than on their Civil Service grades.

Robin Hopkins