March 9th, 2012

Mahmud Quayum (on behalf of the Camden Community Law Centre) v IC and FCO (EA/2011/0167) is the second First-Tier Tribunal decision in recent weeks on section 24 of FOIA (national security). The other is Summers, on which see Anya’s post here. In both cases, the Tribunal has found the exemption to be engaged and the public interest to favour its maintenance.

Quayum concerned the Academic Technology Approval Scheme. The Scheme, introduced in November 2007, aims to prevent the spread of knowledge and skills useful in the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction. All students from outside the EEA and Switzerland who wish to embark on certain designated post-graduate courses must apply to the FCO’s Counter Proliferation Department for an ATAS certificate before they apply for a student visa. The requester expressed concern that, in some cases, the applicant’s nationality could count decisively against them in a manner that breached equalities legislation. He requested details of refused applications, broken down by applicants’ nationalities and proposed study subjects. He argued that unsuccessful applicants lacked adequate rights of appeal, that much information about the scheme (as well as about countries who were a particular concern from a WMD perspective) was already public, and that non-disclosure would foster “an atmosphere of secrecy over openness”. As usual with s. 24 cases, those arguments went both to the engagement of the exemption and to the public interest.

The Tribunal found those arguments insufficient in both respects. The Equality Act 2010 contains an exemption for national security matters (s. 192). While there was no formal right of appeal, unsuccessful applicants could seek a review of refusals; this dispelled concerns about a “surreptitious mechanism”. The information in the public domain was materially different to that which had been requested. The Tribunal recognised that disclosure would assist in the transparency of an arguably controversial Scheme, but found this to be outweighed by the risk of disclosure undermining the effective operation of an important national security measure, including by discouraging universities (who risked being identified from the disputed information) from co-operating with the Scheme.

Regarding the approach to s. 24, the following extracts from the decision are worth noting:

“… national security is predominantly the responsibility of the government and its various departments. The Second Respondent has contended, correctly in the Tribunal’s view, that the Tribunal must at least initially afford due weight to what is regarded as the considered view of such departments, even though the exemption entails an element of public interest and the balancing test. In particular, and again the Tribunal endorses this approach, particular weight should be afforded to the views of the government or its appropriate department with regard to its or their assessment of what is required to safeguard national security in any given case and the prejudice likely to result from disclosure” (paragraph 43), and

“.. the Tribunal is equally firmly of the view in accepting the contention advanced by the Second Respondent that the particular weight to be applied in favour of maintaining the exemption will be proportionate to the severity of the perceived threat. Thus, to take the point which is in issue here it can with some justification, in the Tribunal’s judgment, be argued that since the proliferation of WMD would constitute one of the severest threats to the security of the state, given its potential wide-ranging effect, so must the countervailing public interest in disclosure be a weighty one, such that disclosure becomes a viable option. The Tribunal stresses that nothing that has just been said in any way converts the present exemption into an absolute one” (paragraph 44).

Finally – as is often the case of late – the requester sought to rely on Article 10 ECHR. Interestingly, the Tribunal in this case observed that Article 10 would make no difference to the analysis, given the checks and balances built into the meaning of s. 24 and the public interest test.

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