The Secret(-ish) Diary of Andrew Lansley (aged 58 1/4)

Every election, the House of Commons loses some of its most popular and well-respected Members. This year, it is also losing Andrew Lansley, whose reforms whilst Secretary of State for Health have bought such unwavering support from all parts of the political spectrum. Happily, Mr Lansley kept a diary of his momentous period in office. Unhappily, a FOIA request was only made for his Ministerial diary, which records the Secretary of State’s meetings etc, a redacted version of which was released in response to the request. The ICO ordered most of the withheld information to be released, and that was broadly echoed by the First-tier Tribunal in Department of Health v ICO (EA/2013/0087), on which see here, in rejecting reliance on s35(1)(a), (b) and (d) FOIA.

The DoH appealed, and Charles J has now handed down judgment in Department of Health v ICO & Lewis [2015] UKUT 159 (AAC). The appeal was dismissed. There are a number of points of interest in the judgment, not least:

  • There is a strong public interest in the press and public having the right, subject to appropriate safeguards, to require public authorities to provide information about their activities: at [10]-[12].
  • It is unusual to see a judge refer to his own experience as Treasury Counsel in the development of the law (on public interest immunity): at [18].
  • Disclosure under FOIA should be approached on a contents, specific information, basis and not a class basis: at [19]-[21].
  • It is right to avoid suggestions of inherent weight (on which see my post here): at [22]-[24].
  • A contents based assessment must show that the actual information is an example of the type of information within the class description of an exemption and why the manner in which disclosure of its contents will cause or give rise to risk of actual harm to the public interest, and evidence which does not address this is flawed: at [29]-[30].
  • Although generic reasons in support of the public interest may be inevitable, and are not irrelevant, attempts should be made (particularly by the ICO) to identify specific public interests engaged in support of disclosure: at [35]-[38].
  • Oral evidence can be useful, particularly where it tests credibility rather than reasoning, but the FTT should ask in each case whether it is needed, why it is needed, what limitations should be placed on it and whether other parties should also give evidence: at [41]-[42], [45].
  • Senior civil servants may be taking a line that there should be transparency but only on departmental terms, and their evidence often warrants a ‘Mandy Rice Davies’ sidenote (i.e. he would say that, wouldn’t he): at [48].
  • A high degree of deference to either side is very unlikely to be appropriate when assessing the public interest balance; a thorough and critical analysis of the competing reasoning and analysis should be carried out. A judicious recognition of the extent of Government expertise (and Tribunal lack thereof) is appropriate, and proper weight should be given to the views of those who work in the field, but that does not equate to an approach whereby in an unusual case the FTT should accept the Departmental view unless it is irrational: at [57], [59]-[61], [63]-[67].
  • The FTT had rightly identified very considerable flaws in the Department’s evidence, such that a risk of harm could not be accepted: at [73]-[79], [81]-[82].
  • Charles J’s further reasons on matters not addressed by the witnesses pose clear difficulties for future attempts on the part of (particularly) Government witnesses to assert risk of harm from disclosure without specific evidence: at [80].
  • When considering whether information is held under s3(2)(a) FOIA (“otherwise than on behalf of another person”), the intention of Parliament in promoting the purpose of FOIA (first bullet above) means that University of Newcastle upon Tyne v ICO & BUAV [2011] UKUT 185 (AAC) is correct (see here) and that a predominant purpose approach between different types of information is incorrect: at [106].
  • Non-Ministerial appointments in the diary were supplied by the Minister to avoid clashes etc, and must be considered as part of the diary as a whole. There was a sufficiently direct connection between the content and the reason why the information was recorded by the Department for it to be held. Whether or not it remained held under FOIA might depend on whether it was still said to be exempt under FOIA (for non-s40 reasons). The diary remained held: at [114], [117], [119]-[121].

The judgment is a lengthy one, but contains more nuggets than a KFC bargain bucket (other purveyors of fried chicken are available). Our very own secret blend of eleven herbs and spices, Robin Hopkins, appeared for the ICO.

Christopher Knight