Local authorities are frequently asked to disclose information about their business arrangements with private sector partners: contracts, tender documents, business plans, financial models and the like. In Visser v IC and LB Southwark (EA/2011/0188), the appellant had requested the most recent business plan approved by the Council for Fusion Ltd, a leisure centre management company with whom the Council had contracted. The Council’s reliance upon s. 43 of FOIA – commercial interests – had been upheld by the Tribunal. While the case turned on the clarity and persuasiveness of the evidence of commercial harm, a few general observations are worthy of note.

The first concerns the way the Council had approached its disclosure decision. The Council had discussed the matter with Fusion, and the parties had disagreed on whether disclosure was appropriate. The Council had concluded that, since public money was being expended, the amount that the Council was paying Fusion ought to be in the public domain and open to scrutiny to ensure that public money was being used effectively. This was duly disclosed. However, the Council accepted Fusion’s argument that disclosing the profit and loss schedule would be damaging. It considered that the profit and loss account demonstrated Fusion’s approach and methodology to determine income and managing risks including its ratios and allowances for all expenditure items including staff costs, overhead, surplus and contingency.

The passage of time is often a pivotal factor in commercial sensitivity cases. By the time of the request in this case, the disputed information was two years old. Having considered the evidence, however:

“The Tribunal was satisfied that there was a continuity of approach to [Fusion’s] budgeting and business processes by Fusion which would be revealed by the disclosure of the 2007/8 business plan. This knowledge would be of value to Fusion’s competitors in future tendering processes relating to similar facilities and services. It therefore concluded that the age of the information was largely irrelevant, the commercial sensitivity of this specific information did not diminish over time and so the information remained commercially sensitive.”

The Tribunal also had this to say on the importance of preserving fair competition:

“The tribunal was satisfied that the Commissioner was right to emphasise the importance of the functioning of a fair market in this case. The evidence before the tribunal was that the provision of management services for leisure facilities owned by public authorities is a competitive market with a significant number of strong players within it. If the commercial secrets of one of the players in the market were revealed then its competitive position would be eroded and the whole market would be less competitive with the result that the public benefit of having an efficient competitive market would be to some extent eroded.”

Lastly, it agreed that there was a significant public interest in maintaining commercial confidences, as identified in Veolia ES Nottinghamshire Ltd v Nottinghamshire County Council and others [2010] EWCA Civ 1214, [2011] BLGR 95 CA.

Robin Hopkins