Thinktanks are now a well-entrenched feature of our political landscape. They potentially wield significant influence over policies and policy-makers. However, they are plainly not ‘public authorities’ for the purposes of the information access regime and, hence, are not susceptible to the application of FOIA or the EIR. That said, information relating to these organisations may in certain instances be held by public authorities which do fall within the purview of the access legislation. The question of whether that information is disclosable under FOIA or the EIR is one which was recently considered by the First-Tier Tribunal in Montague v IC (EA/2011/0177). In Montague, a request was made by a journalist for disclosure of the identity of an individual who had made a sizeable donation to Global Warming Policy Foundation (GWPF), a climate change sceptic thinktank chaired by Lord Lawson. The information in question was held by the Charity Commission (CC) as it had been provided to the CC by GWPF in the course of GWPF applying for charitable status. The requested information clearly amounted to the ‘personal data’ of the donor. The principal issue which arose in Montague was therefore whether the IC had correctly concluded that that data was exempt from disclosure under s. 40(2) FOIA. Mr Montague argued before the Tribunal that the IC had erred when he concluded that the information was exempt. This was not least because he had underestimated the GWPF’s influence over Government and policy-makers and, by extension, the public interest in accessing information which revealed who had funded GWPF.
The Tribunal rejected Mr Montague’s case. In a conclusion which will no doubt raise eyebrows in certain quarters, the Tribunal found that there was no evidence before it that GWPF exerted any actual influence over policy-makers. This was despite the fact that GWPF had itself claimed in its annual report that it exerted ‘significant influence’ over policy-makers. Importantly, the Tribunal also found that the donor in question was not an individual who had sought a career in the public eye. It went on to conclude that the charity was not ‘so influential as to make the disclosure of its financial affairs a matter of legitimate public interest outweighing the privacy rights of the data subject’ (para. 36). The Tribunal found that the result would have been the same had the EIR rather than FOIA been the applicable regime. However, it also commented obiter that the EIR did not apply to the information in any event as it did not amount to ‘environmental information’.