EIR: when is information ‘held’?

One of the issues which commonly arises for information law practitioners is the question, which arises under both FOIA and the EIR, of whether a public authority actually holds the information which has been requested. The leading case on section 1(1) FOIA is University of Newcastle v IC & British Union for the Abolition of Vivisection [2011] UKUT 185 (AAC), [2011] 2 Info LR 54 and substantially the same approach has been adopted in, for example, Keiller v IC and University of East Anglia [2012] 1 Info LR 128 and Clyne v IC & London Borough of Lambeth [2012] 2 Info LR 24 in relation to regulation 3(2) EIR. What is required is a common-sense and non-technical approach. That, of course, is easier stated than applied.

The issue arose again in Holland v IC & University of East Anglia (EA/2012/0098). Like Keiller, this case was concerned with the Climatic Research Unit (“CRU”) at UEA, the source of the so-called ‘Climategate’ controversy. Readers will recall that in November 2009 there was an unauthorised disclosure of a large number of emails concerning work undertaken at the CRU. The ensuing controversy led the university to set up the Independent Climate Change E-mail Review (“ICCER”) chaired by Sir Muir Russell, which reported in 2010.

Mr Holland, who had made a submission to the ICCER, requested “copies of all of the information held” by it. A lot of information had been published on the ICCER’s own website, and essentially what remained, the tribunal found, was the Review’s “working papers”. It seems not to have been in issue that they were in the physical possession of Sir Muir Russell or his solicitors and not UEA. The issue was, therefore, whether the information was held ‘on behalf of’ UEA for EIR purposes. The Commissioner thought not, and the tribunal agreed with him.

Directing itself by reference to BUAV as well as a number of other FTT decisions, the Tribunal decided that it needed first to examine the nature of the legal and practical relationship between UEA and the ICCER/Sir Muir Russell. It found that the inquiry could have been conducted internally, but that UEA had decided to externalise it not, as Mr Holland had argued, in order to avoid its obligations under FOIA and the EIR, but “at a time when UEA’s credibility was very much at stake, in order to inspire confidence in the independence of the findings” (para 104). It went on to find that there was nothing in the EIR, nor in the Aarhus Convention, which prevents public bodies from externalising functions or which means that environmental information thereby created is necessarily held by the public body (para 105). Although there was no written document evidencing a contract between Sir Muir and UEA, the Tribunal found that a contract did exist (para 108). It did, however, express considerable surprise at the absence of a written contract and of the fact that “there was no discussion … about the information that would be received or generated by the ICCER” (para 110). Nevertheless, the Tribunal accepted that both parties had proceeded on the assumption that UEA would have no claim to or be able to access the information and that it would be held by the ICCER on its own behalf (para 114).

The Tribunal went on to hold that there was no other sense in which the ICCER was beholden to UEA or in which its independence was compromised. It was not, as Mr Holland had argued, merely a ‘sham’: “we do not find it likely that [UEA] would have compounded its problems so greatly, and risked its credibility so completely, by setting up an inquiry that was independent in name only” (para 116). Neither the involvement of a Professor Boulton on the Review panel (who had previously worked for UEA) nor the decision not to publish the Appellant’s submission in full affected the fundamental independence of the ICCER (paras 117-118). It followed that the information requested was not held ‘on behalf of’ UEA and the appeal therefore failed. Interestingly, the Tribunal did perhaps give some succour to Mr Holland by saying in para 122 “It may be that the information should be held by the UEA and there may be good reason why, barring anything provided in confidence, the information should be passed to the UEA to form part of its historical records. Were that to happen, then in the future, the information may be held by the UEA.” Leaving aside the question-begging first sentence (why, in EIR terms, ‘should’ UEA hold this information?), the second sentence is an important reminder that the answer to the question of whether information is held is one which is liable to change over time and with circumstances.

Edd Capewell

Application of the first data protection principle

Ms Alison Ince worked in a further education institute in Northern Ireland. She was dismissed from her employment in June 1999 and, from around 2002, had alleged on a number of occasions that her managers had been engaged in a fairly widespread fraud against the public purse in 1997. These allegations were investigated first by the Department for Education and Learning (DEL), and then by the Police Service of Northern Ireland. No criminal or disciplinary charges were brought and the investigation was not taken any further. Ms Ince had also raised the matter with her local MLA, with the chairman of the public accounts committee in Westminster and before an Industrial Tribunal (as they are still called in Northern Ireland). The IT held that there were no grounds for finding that any fraud had been committed.

Ms Ince was not satisfied with this finding. In October 2007 she made a request for information from the DEL with respect to her allegations of fraud at the institute. The information she sought included the transcripts of certain interviews held with other employees during the fraud investigation by the DEL. DEL provided some of the information, but withheld the transcripts pursuant to the personal data exemption in section 40(2) FOIA. The Information Commissioner agreed with DEL’s reliance on the exemption.

The Information Tribunal in Ince v Information Commissioner (EA/2010/0089) agreed – for the most part – with the Commissioner’s decision. Save in respect of one of the transcripts – that belonging to a friend of Ms Ince who gave evidence at a late stage in the hearing in which he consented to disclosure – the Tribunal found that it would not be fair for DEL to disclose the information and that disclosure would therefore breach the first data protection principle. Ms Ince had made four contentions in respect of the information:

(i)                  That because it related to the individual’s employment for a public sector organisation it related to their public, not private life;

(ii)                That no harm or distress would have been caused to the individuals by disclosure of the transcripts;

(iii)               That the interviewees’ objections to disclosure were outweighed by other considerations; and

(iv)              That the interviewees did not have a reasonable expectation of privacy in respect of the transcripts

The Tribunal disagreed on all counts. As to (i), following the reasoning in Corporate Officer of the House of Commons v IC and Baker it unanimously rejected the notion that anything said or done by a public sector employee was public information and could therefore be disclosed. It found by a majority that “the disputed information in the case related to the individual’s employment but was not information so directly connected with their public role that its disclosure would automatically be fair”. As to (ii), the Tribunal found that harm or distress would be caused by disclosure generally, and would also be caused by Ms Ince’s own ‘disproportionate’ method of pursuing her allegations –  which included threatening to bring private prosecutions for fraud against certain individuals. The Tribunal further considered that the Commissioner had given appropriate weight to the interviewees’ clearly expressed objections, and that they also had a reasonable expectation of privacy in respect of the transcripts. There was moreover no common law public interest in disclosure – fraud in the education sector generally was obviously of legitimate concern, but would not be helped by disclosure of the information sought by Ms Ince.