The Tribunal has ordered disclosure of information about Universal Credit, in three appeals which were heard together: John Slater v ICO and DWP EA/2013/0145; DWP v ICO and John Slater EA/2013/0148; and DWP v ICO and Tony Collins EA/2013/0149. The Tribunal dismissed both of DWP’s appeals and allowed Mr Slater’s appeal (subject to the removal of some names from the information).
The disputed information in Mr Collins’s appeal was a Project Assessment Review of the Universal Credit Programme (UCP), which was prepared by the Cabinet Office’s Major Projects Authority in early November 2011 and requested by Mr Collins on 1 March 2012.
In Mr Slater’s case, the disputed information was the Risk Register, Issues Register and the High Level Milestone Schedule for UCP and he made the request on 14 April 2012. As described by the Tribunal, “All three categories of document are essential risk management and planning tools in any large long – running project. They are designed to identify and reduce uncertainty and to gain uncompromising input from the widest possible spectrum of participants. UCP, on which work began in 2011, is scheduled for completion in 2017” (§22).
In response to both requests, the DWP relied on the exemption in section 36 FOIA, on ground that, in the reasonable opinion of a qualified person (the Minister), disclosure of the information under FOIA would be likely to inhibit the free and frank provision of advice, or the free and frank exchange of views for the purposes of deliberation, or would be likely otherwise to prejudice the effective conduct of public affairs and that the balance of the public interest was in favour of maintaining this exemption.
The ICO found that the qualified exemption in section 36 was engaged, but that the balance of the public interest favoured disclosure of the Project Assessment Review, Issues Register and High Level Milestone Schedule (but not the Risks Register).
On appeal, the Tribunal agreed with DWP and the ICO that the exemption in section 36 was engaged i.e. it was reasonable for the Minister to conclude that disclosure would be likely to inhibit the free and frank provision of advice, or the free and frank exchange of views for the purposes of deliberation, or would be likely otherwise to prejudice the effective conduct of public affairs. The test was whether there was a realistic possibility, not a 51%+ probability (§49).
Turning to the public interest, the Tribunal attached great importance “not only to the undisputed significance of UCP as a truly fundamental reform but to the criticism and controversy which it was attracting by the time of these requests in March and April, 2012″ (§55). The Tribunal also noted “the unfailing confidence and optimism of a series of press releases” and that UCP was described as on track when milestones had not been achieved on time. It commented that “Where, in the context of a major reform, government announcements are so markedly at odds with current opinion in the relatively informed and serious media, there is a particularly strong public interest in up to date information as to the details of what is happening within the programme, so that the public may judge whether or not opposition and media criticism is well – founded” (§56). It took into account the costs of the programme and the size of the IT interface with local authority systems (§57). Publication of the disputed information upon completion of UCP, “would be a wholly inadequate answer to the demands for transparency” (§58).
On the other hand, the Tribunal acknowledged that the ‘safe space’ requirement can apply in section 36 (as well as section 35) cases (§59). The Tribunal did not take into account evidence which had been given by the Department of Health in a different Tribunal appeal, but which this Tribunal had not seen and which had not been tested in cross examination §61). There was no evidence that disclosure of another risk document, the Starting Gate Review, had inhibited frank discussion (§62). In this context, the need for a degree of deference to the experience of senior public authorities was not as pressing as when tackling questions of security or foreign policy: “The duty of the Tribunal is to consider government evidence on issues such as these carefully, conscious of the experience and expertise of the witness, but using its own knowledge of appeals of this kind, of institutions and behaviour in the workplace to determine whether government information requires the protection claimed, considering the importance of the subject matter to the public. We are not persuaded that disclosure would have a chilling effect in relation to the documents before us“ (§63).
As to diversion of resources if the disputed information was disclosed, the Tribunal commented that ”a programme such as UCP required at the outset a clear public relations strategy and a substantial staff to handle the inevitable flow or even torrent of inquiries and bad news stories which such an important change must attract” and that delivery of UCP may be facilitated by good communication (§64).
Having reached the above general conclusions, the Tribunal considered each of the requested documents in turn. It found that the public interest was in favour of disclosing the information, taking into account in particular that “Ordinary people, properly informed, are capable of grasping why a document dwells on problems rather than successes” and that whilst there may be some prejudice to DWP, the public interest required disclosure. It dismissed DWP’s appeals and allowed Mr Slater’s appeal (subject to the removal of some names from the information), thereby ordering disclosure under FOIA of each of the documents.
Rachel Kamm, 11KBW