Recent decisions of both the UK Information Commissioner (IC) and the Scottish Information Commissioner (SIC) have ensured that FOI continues to hit the headlines. This is particularly the case in a number of situations where the Commissioners have found that, although the information being requested is caught by certain exemptions under the relevant legislation, nonetheless the public interest in disclosure has outweighed the public interest in retaining the confidentiality of the information.
For example in February the IC ruled that the Cabinet Office should release certain minutes of meetings at which military action in Iraq was discussed. Whilst he accepted that the Cabinet should be able to consider such important and sensitive issues without inhibition he was of the view that disclosure of the information would allow the public to more fully understand the decision taken. The IC cited in this case a number of relevant factors including the gravity and controversial nature of the subject matter and the accountability of government. He did agree that certain parts of the minutes should be withheld on the basis that they would have a detrimental affect on international relations. He did make it clear, however, that he does not see this as setting a precedent for the future release of Cabinet minutes.
There have also been a number of recent decisions on the subject of commercial interests. In a recent ruling by the IC it was decided that 32 Local Authorities must disclose the amount of money paid to brokers by investment managers on behalf of employee pension funds. The basis for this was the strong public interest in releasing this information.
In the case of Tameside Metropolitan Borough Council the Council had received a request for all Investment Managers Association disclosure tables. These tables contained a breakdown of commission payments made by investment managers on behalf of the Greater Manchester Pension Fund. The Council had tried to argue that the information would be exempt from disclosure on the basis that it would prejudice commercial interests – the Council's, those of the investment managers and also the brokers associated with the investment managers.
The IC agreed that the commercial interests exemption applied but held that the public interest lay in being able to scrutinise the Council's commission payments to ensure transparency where public bodies are investing public money. The IC did, however, agree that the names of the brokers and specific areas of business named should be removed from the relevant tables being provided. On the back of this similar decisions were issued to 31 other local authorities.
The IC has also ruled that East Riding of Yorkshire Council must disclose details of a waste management contract. This was a ruling under the Environmental Information Regulations but took a similar line in that it was held that the commercial interests exemption was engaged in respect of certain information in the contract. The IC held, however that the balance of the public interest meant that pricing information, operational information, information about emissions and planning and development information should be disclosed. The IC particularly highlighted that the decision to release pricing information did not mean information of this nature would be ordered to be released in future.
High profile contract information being released in Scotland as a result of FOI includes the announcement that the agreement between the Scottish Prison Service and Reliance relating to the arrangements for prisoner escort and court custody services will be published in full. Certain information relating to this contract had previously been disclosed as a result of an FOI appeal but full disclosure has now been agreed between SPS and Reliance.
Other news in Scotland is that the Scottish Information Commissioner has been re-appointed. Having served an initial five year term Kevin Dunion has been reappointed for a further four years. At the end of this period he will have to step down and a new Commissioner will be appointed as it is only possible for any Commissioner to serve for two terms.
The SIC's Office has also published its latest annual report. A key feature of the report is the range of data that it provides including for the first time detailing the performance of individual public authorities. It also looks at the types of parties making requests under FOI and the Commissioner has highlighted that there are a number of areas of the public who he would like to see making greater use of the legislation.