November 25th, 2010 by Anya Proops KC

The Upper Tribunal has this week handed down an important decision on the question of whether privatised water utility companies are ‘public authorities’ for the purpose of the Environmental Information Regulations 2004 (EIR): Smartsource v IC & 19 Water Companies (case no. GI/2458/2010). The background to the appeal was that Smartsource had submitted near identical requests for disclosure of information to some 19 water utility companies. It was not in dispute that the requests fell to be addressed under the EIR. The companies refused to provide the requested information on the basis that they were not ‘public authorities’ for the purposes of r. 2(2) EIR and, hence, were not subject to the disclosure obligations provided for in r. 5 EIR. The Commissioner rejected Smartsource’s complaint about the refusal on the basis that he accepted that the companies were not public authorities under r. 2(2). Smartsource appealed the Commissioner’s decision to the tribunal. The importance of the issues at stake in the case resulted in the appeal being transferred to the Upper Tribunal. The central issues which the Upper Tribunal was called upon to determine were as follows: (1) did the companies ‘carry out functions of public administration’ such that they fell within limb 2(2)(c) of the r. 2 definition of public authority; (2) alternatively, were they ‘under the control’ of a relevant public authority such that they fell within limb 2(2)(d) of the r. 2 definition.

With respect to the first issue, the Tribunal held that the companies did not carry out functions of public administration. It reached this conclusion applying a multifactoral approach akin to the approach adopted in the earlier cases of Network Rail v IC (EA/2006/0061) and Port of London Authority v IC & Hibbert (EA/2006/0083). Notably, the Tribunal rejected arguments advanced by Smartsource that the companies fell within limb 2(2)(d) of the definition because they: were appointed as statutory undertakers; were subject to a range of conditions imposed under statute; were subject to a comprehensive regulatory regime; were unable to choose their own customers or set their own prices; were obliged to provide a universal service; and would be subject to State intervention in the event that they failed. With respect to the second issue, the Tribunal held that that the companies were not ‘under the control’ of a relevant public authority for the purposes of r. 2(2)(d). In reaching this conclusion, the Tribunal accepted arguments advanced on behalf of the Commissioner and the companies that: the concept of ‘control’ in this context meant something more than that the body in question was merely subject to a stringent regime of statutory regulation; the aim of r. 2(2)(d) was to capture State/Executive functions in all their various guises and not the activities of privatised companies of the sort which were in issue in the instant case.

Importantly, the Tribunal also rejected ‘hybridity’ arguments to the effect that a body can be a public authority under the EIR for some purposes but not for others. According to the Tribunal, the way in which r. 2 was formulated meant that the body either was or was not a public authority (cf. the approach adopted in Port of London v IC).

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