Posted on November 22nd, 2009 1 comment
The Information Commissioner appears to be getting a hurry on in his bid to clear the backlog of outstanding appeals – and two of my cases have recently come through the system.
The first which was lodged against the Foreign Office was ruled on in my favour and the documents were disclosed, the second in relation to the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) ended up with a Decision Notice in favour of the public authority.
In the CAA case I had asked for details of Mandatory Occurrence Report forms, which are basically accident or potential accident reports, submitted by XL airlines in the 12 months before they went out of business.
I knew the CAA would claim a S.44 (legal prohibition on disclosure) because the documents are covered by S.23 of the Civil Aviation Act. However, I thought I had found a chink in this legislation as it states it does NOT apply if “…the body corporate has ceased to exist or, whether an individual or a body corporate, cannot be found after all reasonable enquiries have been made…”
The ruling was on a relatively simple point I claimed that as XL was defunct it no longer counted as a “body corporate” and the information should be released. The CAA on the other hand said XL was still in existence in that it was in administration and the administrators had been contacted and did not want the information released.
I still feel a little cheated at this decision and cannot believe that the people who drafted the Civil Aviation Act did so with the intention of protecting companies that have in all meaningful laws ceased to exist. If you want to have a look at the ruling you can see it here. [link]
In the other case I had asked for any Foreign Office briefing notes prepared by British embassy staff that offered any insight on who they thought might win the US elections. I wanted to see the documents as I thought that it would be an interesting story if our highly-paid diplomats had called the election incorrectly.
My journalistic juices started to run when the Foreign Office refused to let me see the document claiming it was covered by a S.27 (international relations) exemption. I took the case to the Commissioner who settled the case without the need for a decision notice and I received an e-mail with the briefing notes, which I post up here.
What makes this interesting in a perverse way is that if you read the document the embassy officials can’t really be criticised. They give an intelligent, insightful and fair appraisal of the state of the election at the time and the candidates’ relative chances of success.
Because of this it makes me wonder why the Foreign Office were so reluctant to release the document as it actually paints a rather good light on the work of its embassy staff.
However, what remains unanswered is the “what if” question. What if the assessment document had been completely wrong, and painted the Foreign Office as a bunch of gin-swilling incompetents? What then? Would that strengthen the power of S.27 to save the Government’s embarrassment, or would the public interest also have been strengthened to allow disclosure.
This case has parallels with the Madeleine McCann investigation e-mails request in which S.27 was deemed to have been engaged for comments made by the UK ambassador in Portugal on the competence of the local police force investigating the child’s disappearance. There was something in those e-mails which were so damning that the exemption was allowed to stay in place. See [Maddy search e-mails to remain secret].
Those of us on the outside of the decision-making process will, I am afraid to say, not be any the wiser as to what engages S.27 and what doesn’t until one day perhaps we might catch sight of what lies inside one of those secret documents so that we can compare and contrast.
Posted on July 28th, 2009 No comments
A look at the cases in the pipeline for the Information Tribunal shows it is going to be a busy autumn for the court this year.
Hopefully the rulings should put some markers in the sand about what is and is not allowed to be exempted from disclosure under the Act.
The full list of cases has just been updated and can be found [here], but I’ve highlighted a few that I think are potentially the most interesting.
Royal Mail – 10th/11th Sept – Here the Information Commissioner ruled the amount spent on management consultants by the Post Office over the last five years should be disclosed despite protestations that the statistics should be covered by S.43 (Commercial Interests). Interesting as I can’t think many FoI officers would agree with the Royal Mail’s position on this one. The Commissioner decision was that the information was not covered by S.43 and didn’t even go on to examine the public interest test IF the exemption had been in play. [FS 50178376]
Department for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform (BERR)
Department for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform (BERR) – 22nd/23rd Sept – This could be a lively hearing in that it relates to the export licences granted to a company called EDO MBM Technology Ltd. This Brighton-based Aerospace Engineering Company, has been the subject of a campaign by local pressure groups who alleged that it had supplied Israel with military aircraft components. There have been a number of demonstrations and protests at the firm’s headquarters. This appeal relates to an attempt by an applicant to get hold of the export licences granted to EDO. The Commissioner agreed with BERR’s ruling on the matter that the information was covered by S.41 (Information Provided in Confidence). [FS 50180838]
Department for Culture, Media and Sport
Department for Culture, Media and Sport – 9th/10th Nov – This relates to internal Government memos on its casino policy, which changed a number of times. Here the Information Commissioner rejected arguments that documents should not be disclosed because the were covered by S.35 (Formulation of Government Policy) and S.43 (Commercial Interests). [FS 50160256]
Civil Aviation Authority (CAA)
Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) – 22nd/23rd October – I have written about this case before [Flight of Fancy shot down by ICO] where the CAA is refusing to issue safety reports on a cargo airline. It has claimed a S.31 (law enforcement) exemption but the Information Commissioner kicked that argument into touch saying the CAA had not shown how releasing such documents would prejudice its affairs. [FS 50168527]
Higher Education Funding Council for England (HEFCE)
Higher Education Funding Council for England (HEFCE) – 16th November – In this case the HEFCE doesn’t want to disclose the database it holds on the make-up and quality of university buildings. It claims the information is covered by a S.41 (Information Provided in Confidence) exemption, but the Commissioner ruled against the authority. Again I have blogged on this case in the past [Uni database to be opened to public scrutiny] and noted the Commissioner ruled the information was not covered by the exemption as there would be no ‘detriment’ to the universities who supplied it. [FS 50188864]
University of Central Lancashire
University of Central Lancashire – 3rd/4th and 5th of November – Pack your healing crystals and make sure you sleep on lay lines as this one is all about the ‘science’ of homeopathy. This case was brought by real scientist David Colquhoun, professor of pharmacology at University College London, who wanted all the papers relating to its homeopathy course. The university refused claiming the info was covered by S.36 (Prejudice to effective conduct of Public Affairs), S41 (Information Provided in Confidence) S.43 (Commercial Interests) and S.21 exemption (available by another means) on the basis that the applicant could pay to enroll on the course and after shelling out almost £10,000 over three years he could view the course documents. The Information Commissioner again rejected the University’s arguments and ordered the documents to be disclosed. The university has refused to back down and will now take its arguments to the druids’ court, sorry I mean the Tribunal. This is an interesting case in that it is at the focus of very public battles between so-called scientists and those that have been dubbed ‘bad-scientists’ in that they hold pseudo scientific beliefs. These arguments are now being hammered out in the libel courts and here at the Information Tribunal, which many would argue is not the proper use of these institutions. Again I have written on this topic before at [Details of “Bad Science” BSc to be revealed]. The Information Commissioner’s decision on the case can be found here [FS 50140374]Decisions BERR, CAA, department of culture media and sport, EDO, HEFCE, homeopathy, information tribunal, royal mail, S.21 (Available by another means), S.31 (Law Enforcement), s.35 (Formulation of Government policy), S.36 (Prejudice to effective conduct of Public Affairs), S.41 (Information Provided in Confidence), s.43 (Commercial Interests), university of Central Lancashire
Posted on April 17th, 2009 2 comments
Two safety audit reports on a cargo airline should be released into the public domain despite pleas from the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) that the documents should be kept confidential.
In a recent decision notice (link) the Information Commissioner’s Office ruled the CAA has incorrectly applied a S.31 (law enforcement) exemption to the information when a request to view the documents had been lodged under the Freedom of Information Act.
The original request, which was made more than two years ago, asked the CAA to hand over a copy of the safety audit report it had compiled on MK Airlines.
The CAA refused claiming the information was covered by the S.31 exemption in that its disclosure would be likely to prejudice its functions.
Basically the CAA said that it has responsibilities and authority under the Civil Aviation Act and the Air Navigation Act. It said that if the information were disclosed then other airlines and organisations it came into contact with would be less likely to co-operate and this erosion of trust would ultimately lead to the CAA being less likely to carry out its responsibilities properly.
However, the ICO rejected these arguments. Once again he reverted back to the Information Tribunal’s assessment of “likely to prejudice” from the decision of John Connor Press Associates v Information Commissioner (link) in which it was stated it should be a “real and significant risk” rather than a “hypothetical possibility”.
It said that the CAA had shown no clear evidence of the prejudice that it might suffer and that it was in the interest of airlines to co-operate with the CAA because they have to if they want to get a licence. The Commissioner also said that the CAA did not need the co-operation of the airlines but could compel them to provide information or risk losing their operators licence.
The Commissioner ruled S.31 was not engaged and did not even then go on to consider the public interest test.
He said: “The ability of the public authority to ascertain the competence of persons purporting to be airline operators or investigate and subsequently confirm the competence of current airline operators is embodied in the regulatory powers……
“It follows therefore that it is in the best interests of persons intending to become, or continue as airline operators to comply with specific requirements, and meet or maintain set standards.
“The trust and openness between the public authority and the aviation industry in this respect is one which is beneficial to both parties, and more so to airline operators or they risk losing their licence.
“In the face of the suggestion that disclosure could result in a lack of openess, the Commissioner is still not persuaded that this would be likely to prejudice the public authority’s ability to exercise its functions………. As noted above, the public authority could compel MK Airlines to provide it with the necessary information to enable it ascertain its suitability as an air operator or risk losing its air operator licence.”
Editor’s note: Once again a public authority found guilty for slapping an exemption on without any real thought of what the prejudice might actually be and how it might occur. The simple fact of the matter is that airlines HAVE to co-operate with the CAA if they want to keep flying. The fact these reports may now become public knowledge has the potential to embarrass both sides but that is not an exemption. This has important consequences for other public authorities, particularly police forces, who must show how they will be prejudiced if they want to apply an exemption.