FROM NAKED PHOTOS TO NUCLEAR ENRICHMENT: ROUNDUP OF NEW TRIBUNAL DECISIONS

September 26th, 2011 by Robin Hopkins

The past week saw a slew of new decisions from the First-Tier Tribunal. Here is Panopticon’s highlights package.

Sections 41 (information obtained in confidence) and 43 (commercial prejudice)

In DBIS v IC and Browning (EA/2011/0044), the requester (a Bloomberg journalist) had sought information from the Export Control Organisation in connection with licences issued for the exporting to Iran of “controlled goods” – explained by the Tribunal as “mainly military, dual use (potentially military), equipment designed for torture or repression or sources of radio-activity”. The relevant public authority, the Department for Business, Innovation & Skills, refused the request, relying on sections 41 and 43. The IC found for the requester on the narrow basis that, whilst disclosure would result in a breach of confidence, no commercial detriment would be suffered by the licence applicants as a result. Subsequent evidence from the Department persuaded the IC to change position and support the appeal, which was resisted by the applicant. In a decision which turned on the evidence, the Tribunal allowed the appeal, and found both sections 41(1) and 43(2) to be effective.

Section 42 (legal professional privilege)

Two recent decisions on this exemption. Both saw the Tribunal uphold the refusal, applying the established approach under which this exemption has a strong in-built public interest. Szucs v IC (EA/2011/0072) involved an FOIA request about an earlier FOIA request (the appellant requested the legal advice and associated documents provided to the Intellectual Property Office about how to deal with a previous FOIA request made by the appellant’s husband). Davis v IC and the Board of Trustees of the Tate Gallery (EA/2010/0185) is eye-catching primarily because it concerned the Tate’s legal advice concerning the inclusion in an exhibition of a photograph of the actress Brooke Shields, aged ten, naked, entitled “The Spirit of America” (the Tate had initially proposed to include this in an exhibition, but ultimately withdrew the photograph).

Section 40 (personal data)

Beckles v IC (EA/2011/0073 & 0074) concerned the identifiability of individuals from small sample sizes, in the context of information about dismissals, compromise agreements and out-of-court settlements. The appellant asked Cambridge University for information on (among other things) the number of employees who received post-dismissal settlements. The answer was a low number. He asked for further details concerning the settlement amounts, rounded to some appropriate non-exact figure. This, said the Tribunal (applying the Common Services Agency/Department of Health approach to identifiability from otherwise anonymous figures) was personal data, the disclosure of which would be unfair. Its reasoning is summed up in this extract:

“Information as to the settlement of a claim made by an identified individual relating to his or her employment is undoubtedly personal data. The question is whether the four individuals or any of them could be identified if the information requested were disclosed, even in approximated form…. Cambridge University is made up of a large number of much smaller academic or collegiate communities. It is likely that a number of colleagues or friends will be aware that a particular individual settled a claim with the University within the time-scale specified. They will be aware of the general nature of that person`s employment. This is a small group of claims in a relatively short period. In the form originally requested it is readily foreseeable that one or more of the four will be identified.”

Sections 24 (national security) and 27 (international relations)

Burt v IC and MOD (EA/2011/0004) concerned information gathered by staff of the UK Atomic Weapons Establishment on an inspection visit to a United States atomic energy facility, as a learning exercise regarding the proposed development of an enriched uranium facility at Aldermaston. The US had expressed its desire to maintain proper confidence in what it regarded as a sensitive area. The MOD refused the request, relying on sections 27 and 24. By the time of the appeal, only a small amount of information had not been disclosed. This was primarily of a technical nature, containing observations about the operation of plant, machinery, procedures and processes at the US facility.

The Tribunal upheld the MOD and Commissioner’s case as regards the outstanding material. As regards section 27, the Tribunal applied the principles from Campaign against the Arms Trade v IC and MOD (EA/2006/00040). It observed, however, that confidential information obtained from another country would not always be protected by section 27: it was “perhaps axiomatic that the foreign State will take the United Kingdom as it finds it including but not limited to the effect of its own domestic disclosure laws. It follows that there may well be cases where information otherwise imparted in confidence from a foreign State to a United Kingdom authority would need to be considered on its own merits as to whether some form of disclosure should be made or ordered whether under FOIA or under similar analogous legislation or principles such as the UK data protection principles.”

As regards section 24, the Tribunal applied Kalman v IC and Department of Transport (EA/2009/0111) (recourse to the exemption should be “reasonably necessary” for the purpose of safeguarding national security), and Secretary of State for the Home Department v Rehman [2003] 1 A 153 (the threat to national security need not be immediate or direct).

Burt is also an example of a “mosaic effect” case: taken in isolation, the disputed information may appear anodyne, but the concern is with how it might be pieced together with other publicly available information.

Section 14(1) FOIA (vexatious requests)

Dransfield v IC (EA/2011/0079) is an example of the Tribunal overturning the Commissioner’s decision that section 14(1) had been engaged (for another recent example, see my post here). As with many such cases, the history and context were pivotal. Given that it is the request, rather than the requester, which must be adjudged to be vexatious, how should the context be factored in? The Tribunal gave this useful guidance:

“There is, however, an important distinction to be drawn between taking into account the history and context of a request, as in the cases referred to above, and taking into account the history and context of other requests made by a requester or other dealings between the requester and the public authority. The former is an entirely proper and valid consideration. The latter risks crossing the line from treating the request as vexatious, to treating the requester is vexatious. That line, in our view, was crossed in the present case.”

Robin Hopkins

 

CHANNEL 4 APPEAL: FOR FOIA PURPOSES, CONTRACTS ARE SEVERABLE

March 23rd, 2011 by Robin Hopkins

Channel 4 v IC and BSkyB (EA/2010/0134) saw the Tribunal consider a short, but potentially very significant point concerning the application of s. 43(2) FOIA, the exemption for commercial confidentiality, to long and complex contracts.

Channel 4 argued that where the substantial parts of a long and detailed contract are exempt under s. 43(2), then the whole contract is exempt. In other words, the public authority is not required to analyse the contract on a clause-by-clause basis. The Tribunal rejected all of Channel 4’s arguments in support of this position – including arguments based on the construction of s. 43(2), a comparison with the EIR, principles of contract, Veolia, ECHR rights and the cost and expense involved. The established approach, which requires clause-by-clause consideration of the application of exemptions, therefore remains intact.

 

PAYMENTS TO SENIOR PUBLIC SECTOR EMPLOYEES: ROUNDUP OF RECENT PERSONAL DATA CASES

February 22nd, 2011 by Robin Hopkins

The FOIA update paper given at last week’s 11KBW Information Law Seminar provides a roundup of recent caselaw in a few of the most common areas of Tribunal litigation.

One is commercially sensitive or confidential information: in particular, Veolia and its aftermath.

Another is information on planning applications and property developments: in particular, those cases subsequent to South Gloucestershire, namely Bristol City, Bath & North East Somerset and Elmbridge.

A third area is personal data: here the recent cases of Dun, Bryce, Ferguson and Ince have all – like the cases mentioned above – been covered in Panopticon posts. Two others to take note of, however, both in the context of public sector pay (other than salaries).

One concerns bonus payments to public sector employees. Davis v IC and Olympic Delivery Authority (EA/2010/0024) saw the Tribunal distinguish between bonus information and performance assessment information. It ordered disclosure of certain information relating to the bonuses of senior employees of the ODA: the maximum performance-related bonuses to which the chief executive and communications director were contractually entitled, and the percentage of the maximum available bonus actually paid to certain other members of senior management. The Tribunal decided, however, that details of the performance targets which individuals failed to hit to 100% satisfaction should not be disclosed.

The other recent case on the personal data exemption is Pycroft v IC and Stroud District Council (EA/2010/0165). The context was an auditor’s report which observed that the local authority’s former Strategic Director of Housing “did not ensure that staff had taken ownership of managing the budgets”. The applicant requested the details of this Director’s early retirement package. The Commissioner found that disclosure of this information would not be fair, and the Tribunal agreed. It should be noted by those dealing with requests for information about payments to allegedly poorly-performing public sector employees.

 

COMMERCIAL INFORMATION AND HUMAN RIGHTS – NEW TRIBUNAL DECISION

January 7th, 2011 by Anya Proops QC

Last month I blogged on a recent Tribunal decision which considered whether, following Veolia v Nottinghamshire CC [2010] EWCA 1214 (“Veolia”), human rights considerations had a role to play in FOIA/EIR  cases involving the potential disclosure of confidential commercial information – see my post on the decision in Staffordshire CC v IC & Sibelco here. This month the Tribunal has promulgated another decision on the issue: see Nottinghamshire CC v IC & Veolia & UK Coal Mining Ltd (EA/2010/0142). The Notts case was concerned with a request for disclosure of particular information contained in a waste management contract between the council and Veolia. The particular information in dispute before the Tribunal was information contained in a schedule to that contract. In essence, the schedule detailed the leasing arrangements under which the council had an option to lease certain land from UKCM. The intention was that, once the leasing option was exercised by the council, Veolia would take a sub-lease of the land and then would build and maintain an incinerator on the land for the purposes of discharging its waste management obligations under the contract.

Contrary to the position adopted by the Commissioner, the Tribunal took the view that, despite the fact that it formed part of an overarching waste management contract, the information in the schedule did not in itself amount to environmental information (i.e. as it was simply information relating to prospective commercial leasing arrangements); accordingly, disclosure of the disputed information fell to be considered under FOIA rather than EIR. The applicable FOIA exemption was the commercial interests exemption (s. 43).

The Tribunal went on in its decision to comment on the application of human rights principles to the appeal, those principles having been considered by the Court of Appeal in the Veolia case. In essence, the Tribunal appears to have held that: (a) following Veolia, valuable commercial information could constitute a ‘possession’ of UKCM under Article 1 of Protocol 1 ECHR; (b) that, if the disputed information amounted to a ‘possession’, then UKMC had a right to privacy in respect of that information under Article 8(1) ECHR and, accordingly (c) disclosure under FOIA of that information would only be lawful if it was justified for the purposes of Article 8(2) ECHR. However, having reached these conclusions, the Tribunal appears to have taken the view that in fact these human rights considerations did not add very much to the overall analysis under FOIA, particularly as the requirements of the Article 8(2) justification test were already effectively reflected in the public interest balancing exercise which was built into s. 2 FOIA (see para. 74 of the decision).

It remains to be seen whether those with an interest in avoiding disclosure of commercially sensitive information will seek to argue in other cases before the tribunal that human rights considerations do in fact alter the analysis of the public interest balance under FOIA and, in particular, that they increase the weight in favour of maintaining the s. 43 exemption.

 

The Open University? Application of FOIA to University Course Materials

December 11th, 2009 by Anya Proops QC

The question of whether and to what extent FOIA can be used as a device to open up public access to educational resources is obviously an important one for our society. It is a question which was very recently considered in the case of University of Lancashire v IC (EA/2009/0034). In that case, the Tribunal was called upon to decide whether a university (UCLAN) had acted unlawfully in refusing a request made under FOIA for disclosure of course materials relating to a BSc degree course in homeopathy. The request had been refused initially on the basis that disclosure of the course materials would damage UCLAN’s commercial interests (application of s. 43 FOIA). Subsequently, when the matter came before the Commissioner, UCLAN also argued that it was entitled to refuse disclosure because of the risks disclosure would pose to the effective conduct of its affairs (application of s. 36 FOIA). The Commissioner held that UCLAN had erred in refusing to disclose the course materials, save that he accepted that certain elements of the course materials, and particularly empirical case studies, could be withheld under s. 41 FOIA (the confidential information exemption). UCLAN appealed the Commissioner’s decision to the Tribunal.

The Tribunal dismissed UCLAN’s appeal. In summary, it held that:

·       with respect to the application of s. 43 FOIA (the commercial interests exemption):

o      despite being a charitable institution, UCLAN did have ‘commercial interests’ and those commercial interests were engaged in respect of teaching materials produced for its degree courses (§31);

o      however, it could not be said that, at the time of the request (July 2006), there was any real and significant risk that disclosure of the homeopathy course materials would prejudice UCLAN’s commercial interestsand accordingly s. 43 was not engaged (§§32-39);

o      in any event, had s. 43 been engaged, the public interest balance under s. 2 FOIA would have weighed firmly in favour of disclosure (§§40-50).

·       with respect to the application of s. 36 FOIA (the public affairs exemption), the exemption was not engaged because the opinion of the qualified person relied on for the purposes of this section was neither reasonable in substance nor reasonably arrived at (§§52-62).

The following aspects of the Tribunal’s decision are particularly worthy of note:

·       in line with the earlier Student Loans case, the Tribunal took a broad approach to the concept of ‘commercial interests’ for the purposes of s. 43. It readily accepted that universities could have commercial interests in the courses which they ran;

·       UCLAN argued before the tribunal that the course materials were exempt from disclosure not least having regard to the facts that: (a) they contained a significant amount of third party copyrighted information and (b) disclosure of that copyrighted information under FOIA would disincline third parties from contributing to course materials in the future. The tribunal rejected these arguments. It did so on the basis that: (1) disclosure of information under FOIA would not in any way have diluted any copyright enjoyed by the third parties and (2) there was in any event no sufficient evidence before the tribunal to substantiate UCLAN’s case that disclosure of the copyrighted material would have had an alienating effect on third party contributors.

·        the Tribunal highlighted the degree of rigour which must be applied when the relevant qualified person is seeking to formulate an opinion which engages s. 36. It also highlighted that the public authority must itself provide evidence that the person who reached the relevant opinion was a ‘qualified person’ for the purposes of s. 36 (§53);

·       on the question of the public interest test, the Tribunal found that there were strong public interests in disclosure. Those interests included both: (1) a general public interest in members of the public being able to test the educational value of publicly funded degree courses and (2) a specific public interest in accessing information relating to a homeopathy degree course which was by its very nature inherently controversial.

The parties were represented by 11KBW’s Tim Pitt-Payne (counsel for UCLAN) and Anya Proops (counsel for the Commissioner).

 

Recent ICO decisions on Freedom of Information

April 8th, 2009 by Amy Rogers

In Decision Notice FS50139215, issued this week, the Commissioner has ordered the Met Police to disclose particular CCTV footage showing the movements of the perpetrators of the terrorist attacks on London on 7 July 2005.

The Met had argued that the footage was exempt from disclosure under sections 30(1)(a) (information held for the purposes of an investigation) and 38(1)(a) (health and safety) of FOIA.

The Commissioner accepted that the exemption in section 30(1)(a)(i) and (ii) of FOIA was engaged. However, he rejected arguments that such disclosure would render meaningful police investigation impossible and that, pending any trial, the CCTV footage should only be disclosed to the CPS, the Courts or other bodies involved in the investigative process.

The Commissioner’s comments on the public interest in full disclosure of any material relating to the 7/7 bombings are of particular interest. He noted, for example, that whilst there had already been widespread media coverage in relation to the bombings, “full disclosure in order to avoid any suspicion of ‘spin’ or ‘cover up’ will continue to be in the public interest regardless of the volume of related information that has previously been disclosed”. On similar lines, he observed that in circumstances in which the 7/7 attacks had been the subject of conspiracy theories, the fact that “disclosure would presumably support the official account of the time line and basic facts of the attacks and reduce any perceived lack of transparency about how this account was formed, along with removing any suspicion of ‘spin’ or ‘cover up’” was a valid public interest factor in favour of disclosure.

The Commissioner rejected the Met’s claim that the exemption under section 38(1)(a) of FOIA (health and safety) was engaged at all, emphasising that the arguments advanced by the Met on this point had lacked detail in relation to the specific CCTV footage in question. He also concluded that, whilst not cited by the Met, the personal data exemption in section 40(2) of FOIA was engaged in respect of footage from which individuals other than the perpetrators of the attacks could be identified. The Met must redact this information, such as by pixellation, before the footage is disclosed.

In other Decision Notices issued this week, the Commissioner has held that:

  • Oxford, Cambridge and Manchester Universities and Kings College and University College, London must disclose information relating to primate research. A complainant had sought such information from a number of universities, including information as to the numbers and species of primates referred to in returns to the Home Office, and as to current research. The Commissioner held that the exemptions relied upon by the universities were not engaged (variously, sections 38 (health and safety), 40 (personal data) and 43 (commercial interests) of FOIA).

 

  • The Department of Health must disclose civil servants’ submissions to Ministers in relation to proposed variations to consultants’ contracts as part of its ‘modernising medical careers’ initiative. Whilst the exemption in section 35(1)(a) (policy) of FOIA was engaged, the public interest in maintaining the exemption did not outweigh that in disclosure (FS50151464).

 

  • In contrast, the FCO was entitled to refuse to confirm or deny whether it held particular information as to identification of a voice heard in the video showing the beheading of Ken Bigley in Iraq in 2004. The FCO successfully relied upon sections 23(5) (information supplied by or relating to the security services) and 24(2) (national security) of FOIA (FS50188323).