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.
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.”
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.