Blair, Bush, Iraq, oil: two new Upper Tribunal decisions

July 2nd, 2013 by Rachel Kamm

The Upper Tribunal has handed down two decisions on Iraq and section 27 FOIA, which raise some interesting procedural points - FCO v Information Commissioner and Plowden GIA/2474/2012 and Cabinet Office and Information Commissioner v Muttitt GIA/0957/2012.

In Plowden, the disputed information was a letter which was relevant to a telephone call on 12 March 2003 between Tony Blair and George Bush during which it was said that they had agreed to say that it was the French who had prevented them securing a UN resolution. The Information Commissioner had ordered the FCO to disclose the information provided by Mr Blair to Mr Bush, but not also the information provided by Mr Bush to Mr Blair. The Tribunal broadly agreed with the Information Commissioner, deciding the appeal under sections 27(1) (international relations) and 35(1)(b) (formulation of Government policy) of the Freedom of Information Act 2000. The Upper Tribunal first considered two preliminary matters, which are of general importance:

  1. Closed hearings. Judge Jacobs found that he could have set aside the Tribunal’s decision on ground that evidence had been given in closed session which could have been given in open session. He emphasised that as much evidence as possible should be given in open session and that, after evidence has been given in closed session, the other party should be told of any evidence that could properly be disclosed (paragraph 10).
  2. Respect for the Tribunal’s expertise. The Upper Tribunal generally will be reluctant to interfere with the (specialist fact-finding) First-tier Tribunal’s assessment of the public interest (paragraph 11). However, less respect will be due where the Tribunal does not have relevant specialist knowledge, for example in relation to the diplomatic consequences of disclosure (paragraph 12).

Having dealt with those preliminary issues, Judge Jacobs went on to set aside the First-tier Tribunal’s decision. It had failed to take account of the benefits of disclosure when assessing the public interest. It had also erred in considering the information line by line, instead of as a package; it was unrealistic to isolate one side of a conversation from the other. The appeal was remitted to the First-tier Tribunal for rehearing. To comply with Article 6 ECHR, that rehearing will be a full reconsideration of the issues which were before the Information Commissioner and it will not be limited to arguments raised by the appellant (paragraph 18).

Judge Jacobs had considered section 27 (international relations) a month earlier, in the Muttitt case. Again, this raised a preliminary issue of general procedural importance. Judge Jacobs found that the parties were not entitled to rely on the reasons given by the First-tier Tribunal for refusing permission to appeal (paragraph 4). These did not supplement the original reasons given by the Tribunal on determining the appeal, which was the decision under challenge. Turning to the substantive issues in the appeal, the disputed documents related to a vist by Mr Blair to Iraq in May 2006. Judge Jacobs found that the Tribunal had erred in law when ordering disclosure, in that it had failed to take into account the nature of the information (in contrast to its content). Reading the First-tier Tribunanl’s reasons as a whole, either it had failed to take account of the circumstances in which the documents came into existence or it had failed to give adequate reasons for its analysis of the information in light of those circumstances.  Judge Jacobs set aside the decision and remitted it for a rehearing of all of the issues raised by the appeal.

In Plowden, Julian Milford of 11KBW was led by James Eadie QC and represented the FCO, with Robin Hopkins of 11KBW representing the Information Commissioner.  In Muttitt, Julian Milford represented the Cabinet Office, Robin Hopkins represented Mr Muttitt and Ben Hooper of 11KBW prepared a written submission on behalf of the Information Commissioner.

Rachel Kamm, 11KBW

EXTRAORDINARY RENDITION

April 22nd, 2012 by Rachel Kamm

Robin Hopkins alerted readers recently to the FTT’s decision on a set of requests made by the All Party Parliamentary Group on Extraordinary Rendition (“APPGER”) to the Foreign & Commonwealth Office: APPGER v Information Commissioner and the Foreign and Commonwealth Office EA/2011/0049-0051.

The Tribunal describes  APPGER as concerned in this case to get to the truth of the UK’s involvement (if any) in extraordinary rendition, which is the extra-judicial transfer (usually across state boundaries or between authorities within them) of a detained person for the purpose of interrogation (often in circumstances where they face a real risk of torture). APPGER’s requests were considered together and related to various individuals and concerns:

  1. Mr Bisher al-Rawi and Mr Jamil el-Banna were detained under the Terrorism Act at Gatwick Airport in November 2002 but, having been held and questioned for a few days, were released and flew to the Gambia. There were some communications between the UK and US authorities about the men. They were arrested by the Gambian authorities on arrival in the Gambia, transferred into US custody, flown to Afghanistan and then detained in Guantanemo Bay from 2003 until 2007. Some of APPGER’s requests were an attempt to find out more about the UK’s involvement in the rendition of these men.
  2. Mr Binyam Mohammed was seized in Pakistan in 2002, rendered to Morocco, transported to Afghanistan and then transferred to Guantanemo Bay where he was held from 2004 until his charge in 2008. The US Government did not challenge his account of brutal treatment. Some of the APPGER requests relate to the FCO’s knowledge of the treatment of Mr Mohammed.
  3. On 4 February 2009, the Divisional Court concluded that it was not in the public interest to disclose information in  passages redacted from a judgment relating to Mr Mohammed because of the continuing threat by the US Government in a letter dated 21 August 2008 that disclosure was likely to result in serious damage to US national security and could harm existing intelligence-sharing arrangements between the US and UK Governments. The media published allegations that the letter had been solicited by the FCO from the US State Department. Some of APPGER’s requests were for information relevant to these allegations.

The FCO had provided some information in response to APPGER’s requests. In relation to other information, it confirmed that it held information falling within the scope of the requests but relied on exemptions in sections 23(1), 27(1)(a), 31(1)(a), 31(1)(b), 32(1), 35(1)(a), 35(1)(b), 40(2) and 42(1) FOIA. In relation to parts of the requests, the FCO claimed that the duty to confirm or deny whether it held the information did not apply by virtue of section 23(5) and 24(2) FOIA.

Turning to the exemptions:

Section 23 - absolute exemption for information directly or indirectly supplied by the security services or relating to the security services

The Tribunal considered the test for information falling within the scope of section 23(1). This provides for an absolute exemption for information which was directly or indirectly supplied to the public authority by a specified body (e.g. the security services) or if it relates to any of those specified bodies. Looking at the question of supply, the Tribunal found that it is a question of fact on the balance of probabilities whether information had been directly or indirectly supplied by the security services to the FCO and it was not a requirement that the security services had intended to supply the information to the FCO. As for information relating to the security services, the Tribunal found that it had to apply a broad but purposive approach and decide whether as a matter of fact on the balance of probabilities the content of the information was ‘something to do with’ the security services (subject to a remoteness test). The Tribunal found that the FCO was entitled to rely on section 23(1) in this case and it commented that the FCO could have claimed the exemption for even more information than it had done.

APPGER then submitted that this interpretation of section 23(1) resulted in a breach of the right to receive information in Article 10 ECHR. Regular readers of this blog will be familiar with the arguments that have been run in the domestic courts (see posts here, here and here). On the current authorities, there would be no breach of Article 10 ECHR even though section 23(1) FOIA is an absolute exemption. However, APPGER asked the Tribunal to stay its decision on this issue, given that issue will be considered by the Supreme Court again in the Kennedy v Charity Commission appeal. The Tribunal refused to stay the issue in this case; it found that it was bound by the Court of Appeal decision in Kennedy (applying the Supreme Court decision in Sugar) and that APPGER could preserve its position by appealing to the Upper Tribunal. It commented that in any event, the absolute exemption in section 23(1) FOIA was justified under Article 10(2).

The Tribunal commented on the Information Commissioner’s approach to this issue, given that he had not seen the disputed information whereas the Tribunal had spent two days establishing the facts. The Tribunal commented that it should not instruct the Commissioner how, in general, he should conduct his investigations but it noted that it had some reservations and it recommended that the Commissioner’s office should take note of how the Tribunal had had to establish the facts in this appeal.

Sections 23 and 24 – the duty to confirm or deny

The FCO had refused to confirm or deny whether it held some of the information requested. It followed its usual approach of relying on both section 23(5)  and also on section 24(2) FOIA. Section 23(5) is an absolute exemption which applies where complying with the duty to confirm or deny that information is held would involve the disclosure of information which was directly or indirectly supplied to the FCO (in this case) by the security services or information which relates to the security services. Section 24(2) is a qualified exemption where information did not fall within section 23(1) and where an exemption from the duty to confirm or deny was required for the purposes of safeguarding national security.

The FCO recognised that it could not rely on this exemption if it had already been officially confirmed in the public domain that the security services were involved in relation to a particular request. APPGER challenged the FCO’s reliance on section 23(5) FOIA in this case. The Tribunal considered what information had been officially confirmed in the public domain and found that the public information relied on was generally broader or different to the scope of the request or said nothing about what had been held by FCO as at the date of the request.

APPGER also challenged the FCO’s dual reliance on section 23(5) and section 24(2). APPGER argued that the FCO had to decide which of these applied, given that section 24(2) only applied if the information in question was not exempt by virtue of section 23(1). The Tribunal rejected this argument and found that the FCO was entitled to refer to both sections when refusing to confirm or deny whether it held information. The provisions were not mutually exclusive.

Section 27 – engagement of the qualified exemption for international relations

The FCO relied on the exemption in section 27(1) for information if its disclosure would or would be likely to prejudice relations between the UK and any other State. The Tribunal adopted the approach in Hogan and Oxford City Council v Information Commissioner [2011] 1 Info LR 588, EA/2005/0026, EA/2005/0030Gilby v Information Commissioner and FCO EA/2007/0071 and APPGER v IC and MoD [2011] UKUT 153 (AAC). The exemption will be engaged if there is a real and significant risk (even if it is less than a probability) that disclose would prejudice relations with another State, in the sense of impairing relations or their promotion or protection. Appropriate weight needs to be attached to evidence from the executive about the prejudice likely to be caused. The Foreign Secretary has unrestricted access to full and open advice from his experienced advisors and is accordingly better informed and has far more relevant experience than any judge for this purpose. In this case, the Tribunal had heard evidence from a member of the Diplomatic Service who was a Senior Civil Servant and there was no evidence to seriously contradict his view about the prejudice which would (in some cases) or would be likely to (in other case) prejudice international relations (notwithstanding the clear and strong public interest in issues around extraordinary rendition).

Section 35 – engagement of the qualified exemption for the formulation and development of Government policy etc.

The Tribunal then considered the qualified exemption where information held by a Government department relates to the formulation or development of Government policy, Ministerial communications, the provision of advice by Law Officers or the operation of any Ministerial private office. The Tribunal considered the appropriate weight to be given to each of these four categories of information.

Section 42 – engagement of the qualified exemption for legal professional privileged information

The Tribunal found that the FCO had properly applied this exemption and it commented that the FCO could in fact have claimed that more information was subject to legal professional privilege.

The balance of the public interest

The Tribunal considered the balance of the public interest in relation to the information which engaged one or more of the qualified exemptions. It did not have to apply any public interest test to the information which engaged the absolute exemptions in section 23(1) or section 23(5).

The Tribunal found that there was a very strong public interest in transparency and accountability around the application of the Government’s public policy opposing extraordinary rendition. This interest was heightened where Ministers have had to correct earlier statements made to Parliament about the application of the policy and where there were claims that US extraordinary rendition had helped to foil terrorist plots in the UK. There was a particularly weighty public interest in knowing whether the Government has been involved, and if so the extent of that involvement, in the detention of British nationals and residents, their rendition to Guantanamo Bay and the attempts by the Government to secure their release. There was a strong public interest in knowing whether there was any impropriety by the UK Government in relation to the letter of 21 August 2008 to the Divisional Court.

On the other hand, there was a very strong public interest in the maintenance of the ‘control principle’ governing the use of secret intelligence information supplied to the UK through security and diplomatic channels, so as not to prejudice the supply of intelligence forming part of a ‘mosaic’ enabling a picture of potential terrorist activity, or threats to national security or UK interests abroad to be built up and countered. There was an even weightier public interest where the US was involved, as the UK’s most important bilateral ally and provider of much security information. There was a public interest in protecting from disclosure deliberations within Government on the formulation and development of policy. The strength of that interest depended on whether there was a need to maintain a safe space for such deliberations. There was a weightier public interest for protecting Ministerial communications in relation to detainees at Guantanamo Bay, given the sensitivity of the matter in diplomatic relations with the US. There was a strong public interest in maintaining the expectations of confidence for diplomatic exchanges. There was an inherently strong public interest in maintaining legal professional privilege including Law Officers advice, which was particularly weighty when litigation was continuing on closely related matters.

In relation to the requests involving international relations, the Tribunal found that the public interest in maintaining the exemption outweighed the public interest in disclosure. The public interest went to the willingness of the US to share with the UK all types of secret intelligence material. The reasonableness of the US attitudes was not part of the balancing exercise; it was the fact of the existence of those attitudes which mattered. The Tribunal had considered in closed session whether there was any evidence of impropriety by the FCO in relation to the letter of 21 August 2008 to the Divisional Court and found that there was no such evidence. In relation to other information, the Tribunal satisfied that there was nothing which would add to the public knowledge of the mistreatment of Mr Mohamed. If there had been new information, this would have weighed significantly in striking the balance, but there was not.

In relation to the requests involving legal professional privilege or Law Officers advice, the Tribunal found that the balance of the public interest was in favour of maintaining the exemptions in sections 42 and section 35(1)(c). At the time of the requests, civil claims were being pursued against the Government by a number of former detainees. It would undermine the relationship between lawyer and client if privileged material was released in this case. Counsel for the Government are when necessary provided with access to highly confidential information in order to provide the most comprehensive advice. The advice requested in this case could not reasonably be regarded as old or no longer live.

In relation to the requests involving the formulation and development of Government policy, the Tribunal found that the balance of the public interest was in favour of maintaining the exemption. It took into account that the policy regarding the release and return of detainees in Guantanamo Bay was very much live at the time of the requests, that policy continued to develop and the disputed information included drafts which were not necessarily the Government’s final position. There was a very strong public interest in the Government having a safe space to develop this policy.

Decision

The Tribunal upheld the Commissioner’s decisions, except where the Commissioner conceded to points raised by the FCO in a cross-appeal and except in relation to four documents where no exemption applied.

Finally, this post could not omit  mentioning that11KBW’s chief Panopticonner Robin Hopkins represented the Information Commissioner, Joanne Clement (11KBW) acted pro bono to represent APPGER, and Karen Steyn (also of 11KBW) and Julian Blake represented the FCO.

Rachel Kamm, 11KBW

EXTRAORDINARY RENDITION: NEW APPGER DECISION ON SS. 23, 27, NCND AND OTHERS

April 12th, 2012 by Robin Hopkins

I blogged yesterday (see below) on APPGER’s litigation in the US courts concerning information about security bodies and their role in extraordinary rendition. The UK’s First-Tier Tribunal has today promulgated its decision on a separate set of requests made by APPGER to the Foreign & Commonwealth Office. The decision deals primarily with sections 23, 27, 35, 42 and the ‘neither confirm nor deny’ provisions under sections 23(5) and 24(2) of FOIA.

One of my fellow Panopticonners will post some commentary on the case shortly. In the mean time, here is the hot-off-the-press decision:

20120412_APPGER_decision

CAMPAIGN AGAINST ARMS TRADE – SECTION 27

November 27th, 2011 by Rachel Kamm

The First Tier Tribunal (Information Rights) has been considering international relations in Campaign Against Arms Trade v Information Commissioner and Ministry of Defence, EA/2011/0109.

The Campaign Against Arms Trade contacted The National Archive by email on 22 May 2009 to request access to files held under reference nos. DEFE68/133 and DEFE68/136. File 133 was entitled or described as relating to the “[MOD]: Central Staff: Registered Files and Branch Folders: sale of arms to Saudi Arabia”. The file was said to be made up predominantly of “telegrams, memos and general correspondence to deal with the negotiations which took place during 1971/72 regarding the Saudi Arabian Air Defence Program (SADAP)”. File 136 was stated as dealing with the follow-up to the Saudi decision not to renew a contract for the training and maintenance of aircraft operated by the Royal Saudi Air Force with the British firm, Airwork, but to give it to the Pakistani Air Force instead.

The National Archive released the files with redactions and invoked section 27(1) and section 27(2) of the Freedom of Information Act 2000 (FOIA).  Section 27(1) provides that “Information is exempt information if its disclosure under this Act would, or would be likely to, prejudice –(a) relations between the United Kingdom and any other State, (b) relations between the United Kingdom and any international organisation or international court, (c) the interests of the United Kingdom abroad, or (d) the promotion or protection by the United Kingdom of its interests abroad.” The MoD relied on (a), (c) and (d) of section 27(1). They also relied section 27(2), which provides that  “Information is also exempt information if it is confidential information obtained from a State other than the United Kingdom or from an international organisation or international court”. Both of these are qualified exemptions.

The Information Commissioner found that the exemptions in sections 27(1)(a), (c) and (d) and also section 27(2) were engaged. Having considered the balance of the public interest, he ordered limited disclosure of the previously redacted material. The appellant did not challenge this decision with respect to section 27(2) and therefore the Tribunal’s decision is only concerned with section 27(1).

The Tribunal considered the decision of Gilby v Information Commissioner and Foreign & Commonwealth Office (EA/2007/0071, 0078 and 0079).  The Tribunal commented that it was not bound by Gilby but that it was following the same general approach: ”If corrupt activities on the part of UK officials are evident from the papers, as defined in paragraph 59 of the Gilby decision, there is a strong public interest in disclosure“. However, it had “real difficulty in applying a workable and justifiable approach to partial disclosure of documents through redaction“.

The Tribunal concluded that section 27(1) was engaged and that the Commissioner had properly applied the public interest considerations. It rejected the argument that, given the level and extent of disclosure in the wake of the Gilby decision and indeed in another context, disclosure of much although not all of the requested information would not necessarily lead to an unfavourable reaction on the part of Saudi Arabia.

Interestingly, the Tribunal commented on its approach where the parties have agreed to an appeal being determined on the papers without a hearing. Where the parties so consent, the Tribunal ”is firmly of the view that it must therefore approach this appeal with a proper sense of proportion and also with a due sense and degree of proportionality. The costs which would be attendant on a more protracted exercise means that a minute dissection of what is a substantial body of information cannot properly be justified at least in the present case and the Tribunal so finds“. The parties should bear this comment in mind, when deciding whether or not to request an oral hearing of an appeal.

FROM NAKED PHOTOS TO NUCLEAR ENRICHMENT: ROUNDUP OF NEW TRIBUNAL DECISIONS

September 26th, 2011 by Robin Hopkins

The past week saw a slew of new decisions from the First-Tier Tribunal. Here is Panopticon’s highlights package.

Sections 41 (information obtained in confidence) and 43 (commercial prejudice)

In DBIS v IC and Browning (EA/2011/0044), the requester (a Bloomberg journalist) had sought information from the Export Control Organisation in connection with licences issued for the exporting to Iran of “controlled goods” – explained by the Tribunal as “mainly military, dual use (potentially military), equipment designed for torture or repression or sources of radio-activity”. The relevant public authority, the Department for Business, Innovation & Skills, refused the request, relying on sections 41 and 43. The IC found for the requester on the narrow basis that, whilst disclosure would result in a breach of confidence, no commercial detriment would be suffered by the licence applicants as a result. Subsequent evidence from the Department persuaded the IC to change position and support the appeal, which was resisted by the applicant. In a decision which turned on the evidence, the Tribunal allowed the appeal, and found both sections 41(1) and 43(2) to be effective.

Section 42 (legal professional privilege)

Two recent decisions on this exemption. Both saw the Tribunal uphold the refusal, applying the established approach under which this exemption has a strong in-built public interest. Szucs v IC (EA/2011/0072) involved an FOIA request about an earlier FOIA request (the appellant requested the legal advice and associated documents provided to the Intellectual Property Office about how to deal with a previous FOIA request made by the appellant’s husband). Davis v IC and the Board of Trustees of the Tate Gallery (EA/2010/0185) is eye-catching primarily because it concerned the Tate’s legal advice concerning the inclusion in an exhibition of a photograph of the actress Brooke Shields, aged ten, naked, entitled “The Spirit of America” (the Tate had initially proposed to include this in an exhibition, but ultimately withdrew the photograph).

Section 40 (personal data)

Beckles v IC (EA/2011/0073 & 0074) concerned the identifiability of individuals from small sample sizes, in the context of information about dismissals, compromise agreements and out-of-court settlements. The appellant asked Cambridge University for information on (among other things) the number of employees who received post-dismissal settlements. The answer was a low number. He asked for further details concerning the settlement amounts, rounded to some appropriate non-exact figure. This, said the Tribunal (applying the Common Services Agency/Department of Health approach to identifiability from otherwise anonymous figures) was personal data, the disclosure of which would be unfair. Its reasoning is summed up in this extract:

“Information as to the settlement of a claim made by an identified individual relating to his or her employment is undoubtedly personal data. The question is whether the four individuals or any of them could be identified if the information requested were disclosed, even in approximated form…. Cambridge University is made up of a large number of much smaller academic or collegiate communities. It is likely that a number of colleagues or friends will be aware that a particular individual settled a claim with the University within the time-scale specified. They will be aware of the general nature of that person`s employment. This is a small group of claims in a relatively short period. In the form originally requested it is readily foreseeable that one or more of the four will be identified.”

Sections 24 (national security) and 27 (international relations)

Burt v IC and MOD (EA/2011/0004) concerned information gathered by staff of the UK Atomic Weapons Establishment on an inspection visit to a United States atomic energy facility, as a learning exercise regarding the proposed development of an enriched uranium facility at Aldermaston. The US had expressed its desire to maintain proper confidence in what it regarded as a sensitive area. The MOD refused the request, relying on sections 27 and 24. By the time of the appeal, only a small amount of information had not been disclosed. This was primarily of a technical nature, containing observations about the operation of plant, machinery, procedures and processes at the US facility.

The Tribunal upheld the MOD and Commissioner’s case as regards the outstanding material. As regards section 27, the Tribunal applied the principles from Campaign against the Arms Trade v IC and MOD (EA/2006/00040). It observed, however, that confidential information obtained from another country would not always be protected by section 27: it was “perhaps axiomatic that the foreign State will take the United Kingdom as it finds it including but not limited to the effect of its own domestic disclosure laws. It follows that there may well be cases where information otherwise imparted in confidence from a foreign State to a United Kingdom authority would need to be considered on its own merits as to whether some form of disclosure should be made or ordered whether under FOIA or under similar analogous legislation or principles such as the UK data protection principles.”

As regards section 24, the Tribunal applied Kalman v IC and Department of Transport (EA/2009/0111) (recourse to the exemption should be “reasonably necessary” for the purpose of safeguarding national security), and Secretary of State for the Home Department v Rehman [2003] 1 A 153 (the threat to national security need not be immediate or direct).

Burt is also an example of a “mosaic effect” case: taken in isolation, the disputed information may appear anodyne, but the concern is with how it might be pieced together with other publicly available information.

Section 14(1) FOIA (vexatious requests)

Dransfield v IC (EA/2011/0079) is an example of the Tribunal overturning the Commissioner’s decision that section 14(1) had been engaged (for another recent example, see my post here). As with many such cases, the history and context were pivotal. Given that it is the request, rather than the requester, which must be adjudged to be vexatious, how should the context be factored in? The Tribunal gave this useful guidance:

“There is, however, an important distinction to be drawn between taking into account the history and context of a request, as in the cases referred to above, and taking into account the history and context of other requests made by a requester or other dealings between the requester and the public authority. The former is an entirely proper and valid consideration. The latter risks crossing the line from treating the request as vexatious, to treating the requester is vexatious. That line, in our view, was crossed in the present case.”

Robin Hopkins

“SANDSTORM” PERSONAL DATA AND THE BCCI COLLAPSE

July 19th, 2011 by Robin Hopkins

The Tribunal’s recent decision in Sikka v IC and HMT (EA/2010/0054) is a good illustration of how FOIA exemptions (here concerning prejudice to international relations and personal data) may be trumped by the overwhelming interest in the public being informed about corporate wrongdoing on a massive scale – including the public knowing the names of those involved in that wrongdoing. Some topical resonance perhaps.

It is also another useful illustration of how personal data should not be assessed on a “one size fits all” basis, but should (where appropriate) be analysed by category. In other words, distinguish between, for example, companies, senior management, employees and customers.

Background

In March 1991, the Bank of England instructed Price Waterhouse to undertake an audit of The Bank of Credit and Commerce International. Price Waterhouse submitted a draft of its report, known as the “Sandstorm” report. The report was never finalised, but the Bank of England relied on the draft to justify its decision to order BCCI immediately to close down its activities in the UK. That led to the collapse of BCCI into insolvency, owing creditors around the world something in the region of US$10 billion.

By the time of the request for a copy of this report (March 2006), an almost complete copy of the Sandstorm Report had been published on the internet, even though it had never been formally published by the Bank of England, albeit with certain names redacted and certain sections missing. The Bank of England relied upon section 40(2) (personal data) and section 27(1)(a) (prejudice to international relations) in refusing to disclose this remaining information. The Commissioner agreed. For the most part, the Tribunal did not.

Prejudice to international relations

The Tribunal agreed that section 27(1)(a) was engaged, but decided that the public interest favoured disclosure. At paragraph 31, it said this:

“Although the material proposed to be redacted under this exemption comprises just a few sentences in a 44 page report, it does contribute a very relevant element to the story as a whole. And we do not think that the public interest is materially reduced by the appearance of much of the same information in other published reports. The public has an interest in seeing how each of those who carried out an investigation illuminated the facts and assessed the actions of those who were involved, whether they contributed to the problems, tried to resolve them or played a neutral role. The weight we apply to this element of public interest has been heavily influenced by our view of the importance of the events surrounding the collapse of BCCI, the serious ramifications it had for many innocent people caught up in it and the questions it raised about the regulation and auditing of a large international institution.”

Personal data

A number of categories of allegedly personal data were identified. An interesting category was the names of companies, from which it was argued that individuals could be identified. The Tribunal was not persuaded by the evidence as to the risk of identifiability.

In any event, as regards senior management, it took the view that “those having [such] positions in either BCCI or other organisations that were closely involved in the unlawful elements of its activities should be identified”, given the seriousness of the issue.

The Commissioner had decided that the names of employees should not be disclosed, whether or not their involvement with BCCI had previously been raised in the course of criminal proceedings. He argued as follows. If they had been convicted, it might be unfair to raise their involvement again some 15 years or more after the event. If they were acquitted, or faced no criminal action, there would be unfairness in blighting future employment prospects by disclosing, in 2007, their involvement with BCCI some years previously. The Tribunal disagreed in part. Its view was that the question of disclosure in these circumstances should turn on the seniority of the employee. At paragraph 44, it said this:

“As regards the potential impact on future employment prospects of those who were acquitted or never prosecuted, we believe that any truthful job application and curriculum vitae will, in any event, include mention of time spent in the employment of BCCI. We do not think that those individuals mentioned in the confidential schedule, whose names we say should be disclosed, should be encouraged to omit or misrepresent this part of their career history, given the criticism voiced in the Sandstorm Report and the importance of employee competence and honesty to future employers in the banking sector.”

As regards the personal data of BCCI customers, the Tribunal distinguished between those whose hands were clean with respect to the BCCI fraud (do not disclose) and those whose hands were not (disclose).

Much turned on the gravity and public profile of the BCCI collapse. In these circumstances, the Tribunal found that information aired in a public trial was likely to remain in the public domain (contrast Armstrong v IC and HMRC (EA/2008/0026)), and that the passage of time undermined rather than strengthened the argument in favour of individual privacy.

Robin Hopkins

EXTRAORDINARY RENDITION UPPER TRIBUNAL APPEAL: LATE RELIANCE, PERSONAL DATA & OTHER ISSUES

April 26th, 2011 by Robin Hopkins

The All Party Parliamentary Group on Extraordinary Rendition (APG) requested information from the Ministry of Defence on (i) memoranda of understanding between the UK and the governments of Iraq, Afghanistan and the USA regarding the treatment of prisoners detained in the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan, (ii) a copy of the Detentions Practices Review, (iii) a copy of the UK’s policy on capture and joint transfer, and (iv) statistics on detainees held in Iraq and Afghanistan. The MOD refused the requests, relying on a number of exemptions under FOIA. For the most part, the Commissioner agreed. APG’s appeal was expedited to the Upper Tribunal and heard by Blake J, Andrew Bartlett QC and Rosalind Tatam.

Except as regards request (iii), its appeal has succeeded, to a limited but substantial extent. The Upper Tribunal has ordered disclosure or significantly more information than that ordered by the Commissioner.

Its judgment (available here) is complex. Some of the key points of interest are as follows.

Late reliance

The Upper Tribunal was mindful of the decision of a differently constituted Upper Tribunal in the DEFRA/Brikett appeals, where it was held that public authorities may rely on exemptions as of right at any stage in proceedings. In this case, the Upper Tribunal did not need to decide the issue of late reliance, but it did confess to having “some general concerns” about such an approach, which threatens to “turn the time limit provisions of ss. 10 and 17 almost into dead letters”, and “can also create a strong sense of injustice”. The internal review mechanism provides sufficient time for the public authority to make its mind up; if new points are taken thereafter, “then fairness requires that the requester should be allowed to add to the terms of his complaint under s. 50(1)”.

Cost of compliance under s. 12 FOIA

The Upper Tribunal approved principles from Urmenyi v IC and LB Sutton (EA/2006/0093) concerning the Commissioner’s enquiries into the assumptions behind the public authority’s estimate, and from Roberts v IC (EA/2008/0050) about the activities falling within s. 12 and the reasonableness of estimates.

Late reliance on s. 12 is a different matter to late reliance on exemptions under Part II of FOIA. Delay by a public authority robs the requester of the opportunity to split the request into parts separated by 60 days, thereby avoiding s. 12. The cost exemption “only has meaning if the point is taken early on in the process, before substantial costs are incurred” – it looks at whether costs would exceed, not whether they have been exceeded.

In the present case, the MOD’s estimate was not reasonable because it was based upon a search for a broader class of information than that which was actually requested.

Prejudice to international relations under s. 27 FOIA

The Upper Tribunal was not persuaded that this exemption was effective: “since the maintenance of the rule of law and protection of fundamental rights is known to be a core value of the government of the United Kingdom, it is difficult to see how any responsible government with whom we have friendly relations could take offence at open disclosure of the terms of an agreement or similar practical arrangements to ensure that the law is upheld”.

Legal professional privilege under s. 42 FOIA

This exemption was engaged, and the public interest in favour of disclosure of the UK’s Detention Practices Review did not outweigh the public interest in maintaining the exemption.

Bodies dealing with security matters under s. 23 FOIA

The MOD successfully relied on this exemption – including where it was relied on “late”.

Personal data under s. 40 FOIA and the conditions in Schedule 2 DPA

Information on the dates and locations of individual cases of detention and prisoner transfer would not enable identification of those individuals, and was thus not personal data. If it had been personal data, condition 6(1) from Schedule 2 DPA would have been met.

APG in fact submitted that conditions 4, 5(a), 5(d) and 6(1) would be met by disclosure of statistics on detainees. The MOD submitted that a number of these conditions could not be relied on in the context of a request under FOIA because the public at large (to whom disclosure under FOIA is deemed to be made) cannot fulfil these conditions. The Upper Tribunal disagreed: at least some of these conditions can be fulfilled by a member of the public, and that is sufficient.

APG further relied on s. 35(2) DPA, which provides an exemption from the non-disclosure provisions of the DPA where disclosure is “necessary for the purposes of establishing, exercising or defending legal rights”. The Upper Tribunal confirmed that “establishing” for these purposes had the sense of “vindicating” rather than merely determining what the relevant rights are.

Where data is anonymised, it continues to attract the protection of the data protection principles insofar as it is in the hands of the data controller (who holds the key to identification of the otherwise anonymous data subjects). “But outside the hands of the data controller, the information is no longer personal data, because no individual can be identified… the best analysis is that disclosure of fully anonymised information is not a breach of the [DPA] because at the moment of disclosure the information loses its character as personal data”. The publication of truly anonymised or other “plain vanilla” data therefore does not involve “processing of personal data” for DPA purposes.

Related judgments

On the late reliance issue, permission to appeal to the Court of Appeal is being sought in the DEFRA/Birkett case.

On the s. 40 FOIA issue, the Upper Tribunal’s decision needs to be read in conjunction with the High Court’s decision (also handed down very recently) in the Department of Health’s “abortion statistics” appeal.