In the recent decision in UK Coal Mining v IC, Nottinghamshire County Council & Veolia  UKUT 212 AAC, the Upper Tribunal has dismissed an appeal concerned with section 43(2) of FOIA (commercial prejudice): the First-Tier Tribunal (decision EA/2010/0142, on which see our post here) had been entitled to find that only very limited redactions could be made to provisions from a PFI contract for a waste incinerator. Upper Tribunal Judge Wikeley’s decision, while largely fact-specific, illustrates two significant points.
First, appeals against FTT decisions are liable to fail where they are simply attempts to re-run questions of fact and judgment.
Secondly, those seeking to rely on section 43(2) FOIA should be as precise as possible. Sometimes, for example, a clause in a contract might appear commercially sensitive at first glance, but upon closer scrutiny all that really warrants withholding might be the numbers.
The background to the decision is briefly as follows. UK Coal entered into a complex PFI agreement with the Council for an option to lease a former colliery site the site, with Veolia then sub-leasing the site from the Council to operate an incinerator. Upon a request for the contracts, the Commissioner found that regulation 12(5)(e) of the EIR (confidentiality of commercial or industrial information) was engaged, but that the public interest favoured disclosure. Upon what was effectively UK Coal’s appeal, the FTT found that the matter should have dealt with under FOIA rather than the EIR. Section 43(2) was engaged, but the public interest favoured disclosure of at some of the disputed information. Eventually, the Tribunal largely endorsed the Commissioner’s (very limited) redactions, rejecting the much more extensive redactions proposed by UK Coal. UK Coal’s appeal to the Upper Tribunal failed.
As regards challenges to the FTT’s decision, Upper Tribunal Judge Wikeley said that it was important that the FTT’s statement of reasons is read as a whole, rather than highlighting particular phrases and taking them out of their wider context. The FTT had allowed for the redaction of what it called “core financial information”, but this was simply a convenient shorthand not amenable to close textual analysis or to legal challenge per se.
Notably, he said that this of the FTT’s assessment:
“This was a quintessential issue of fact and degree for the tribunal at first instance to determine… The bottom line is that UK Coal is essentially seeking to re-argue questions of fact and judgement which have been litigated and adjudicated upon on their merits by the FTT.“
Judge Wikeley also warned that the caution against relying too heavily on other FTT decisions (see the Upper Tribunal’s decision in LB Camden v IC and Voyias GIA/2986/2011) applies with even greater force to attempts to rely on other decision notices by the ICO (as UK Coal sought to do here).
Turning to the section 43(2) redactions urged by UK Coal, the Upper Tribunal considered these to be “far too wide-ranging” and its arguments unsustainable. Some of the terms it sought to withhold were commonplace to commercial agreements. The FTT had approached its redaction analysis with care and precision, and correctly struck a balance between protecting UK Coal’s proper commercial interests under section 43 while ensuring that other information is disclosed. In some cases, the FTT allowed only for the redaction of figures rather than terms as a whole. This nonetheless ensured that a member of the public would have “no idea as to either the commercial methodology or the key financial and other numerical variables used”.
The Upper Tribunal’s decision cites specific examples of the scope of redactions to commercial terms which the FTT applied and which the Upper Tribunal found to be entirely understandable. The examples merit close attention by those seeking to withhold information in similar cases.