Tag Archives: Environmental Information Regulations 2004

Developing the Information Expressway

The Upper Tribunal has recently considered the meaning and scope of the exception in Regulation 12(4)(d) of the Environmental Information Regulations 2004 (“the EIRs”). This exception allows a public authority to withhold environmental information in response to a request where “the request relates to material which is still in the course of completion, to unfinished documents or to incomplete data”.

Highways England Company Limited v Information Commissioner and Henry Manisty [2018] UKUT 432 (AAC) concerned a request made to Highways England by Mr Manisty in December 2016. Mr Manisty request related to the possible route of the Expressway between oxford and Cambridge being investigated by Highways England. His request was refused by Highways England and the Information Commissioner did not uphold Mr Manisty’s subsequent complaint to her office. Mr Manisty appealed to the First-Tier Tribunal who allowed his appeal, deciding that the exception in Regulation 12(4)(d) did not apply. Highways England sought, and was granted, permission to appeal to the Upper Tribunal.

Upper Tribunal Judge Jacobs reminds us that as the EIRs implement an EU Directive they must (for now) be interpreted in a way that accords with the normal principles that apply to EU law. Judge Jacobs reminds us that one of those principles is that the exceptions must be interpreted restrictively. Judge Jacobs points out that this is a separate consideration from the presumption in favour of disclosure enshrined within the EIRs; that presumption simply allocates the burden of proof while the restrictive approach defines the scope of the exception.

Judge Jacobs also addresses the Aarhus Convention and the Implementation Guide. The EU Directive, which the EIRs implements, implements the Aarhus Convention into EU law and so regard has to be had to the convention when interpreting the EIRs and the Directive. Judge Jacobs, in paragraph 19, reviews some of the relevant case law and concludes that the Implementation Guide “can be used to aid interpretation, but it is not binding and cannot override what the Convention provides.”

Judge Jacobs includes two helpful paragraphs setting out what the exception does not mean. When deciding the scope of the exception it is not permissible to take into account any adverse consequences that disclosure might have. This is relevant for the purposes of determining where the public interest lies and also, perhaps, deciding whether the exception is engaged. Judge Jacobs states that “[a]dverse consequences must not be made a threshold test for regulation 12(4)(d).” [para 21]

Judge Jacobs considers what “material” and “relates to” means within the exception. In respect of “material”, he considers that the word material “is not apt to describe something incorporeal, like a project, an exercise or a process.” The material in question may form part of a project or process etc.; however, the material in question must itself be in the course of completion. We are not necessarily concerned with whether the project is in the course of completion. [para 23] Judge Jacobs also holds that “[m]aterial includes information that is not held in documents and is not data: things like photographs, film, or audio recordings.” [para 24]

Having already looked at what the exception does not mean, Judge Jacob eventually gets around to deciding what the exception does mean. He notes, in paragraph 28, that the language in the exception is “deliberately imprecise.” That being said, Judge Jacobs, in paragraph 30, returns to the principle that the exception should be applied restrictively. The imprecise language does not mean the exception can be applied “so widely as to be incompatible with the restrictive approach required by EU law.” At the same time it cannot be applied so narrowly that its purpose is defeated. In paragraph 31 of the decision, Judge Jacobs, identifies yet another deliberately vague expression within the exception: ‘piece of work’. The judge identifies some factors that may be of some assistance in applying the exception. For example, if there has been a natural break in the public authority’s private thinking; or, perhaps, the public authority is at a stage where publicity around its progress so far is taking place. The continuing nature of the project, process or exercise might also be a relevant feature. However, public authorities shouldn’t get too excited: this is not, by any means, a checklist. Judge Jacobs makes it clear that each case will turn on its own circumstances.

Public authorities should also be aware that their own internal labels will not be determinative of matters; it is not possible to, in the words of Judge Jacobs “label [your] way out of [your] duty to disclose.” Labels such as “draft or preliminary thoughts may, or may not, reflect the reality.” [para 32]

Counsel for Highways England is recorded as having emphasised legal certainty and its importance. Judge Jacobs accepts that his decision will not produced legal certainty in the way that was possibly envisaged by Counsel for Highways England. Judge Jacobs notes that its application will not be easy; however, issues of judgement are involved and that limits what can be achieved.

In deciding that the First-Tier Tribunal had not erred in law, Judge Jacobs took the view that, when reading the First-Tier Tribunal’s reasoning as a whole; its approached accorded with his analysis of the operation of the exception. The First-Tier Tribunal “understood that it was exercising a judgment on whether the information requested could now properly be considered as independent from the continuing work on the Expressway.”

So, what have we learned? Judge Jacobs has certainly gone through the exception carefully and produced what he considers to be the best that can be achieved in terms of defining the scope of the exception in Regulation 12(4)(d). Its scope is narrow, but not so narrow as to defeat the policy intention of providing a space for public authorities to think in private; however, its imprecise nature should not be taken as giving public authorities cart blanche. Each and every case will turn on its own circumstances and a degree of judgement is involved in determining whether the exception will apply or not.

There are also some useful reminders (for now) about the need to utilise EU law principles when interpreting the EIRs. There is also a useful reminder, in paragraph 6, about the approach that the Upper Tribunal adopts when considering an appeal. It is unlike the First-Tier Tribunal; it is not conducting a re-hearing of the case. The Appellant has to show that the First-Tier Tribunal erred in law. We are also reminded that the nature of the language of the provision has to be taken into account when considering legal certainty; it is therefore not always possible to give a precise exposition of the scope of a provision – sometimes, it really does just come down to a matter of judgement.

Alistair Sloan

We are able to provide advice in connection with a wide range of information law matters, including Freedom of Information Act/Environmental Information Regulations appeals. If you would like advice and assistance on any of these matters then please contact Alistair Sloan on 0141 229 0880 or by E-mail. You can also follow our dedicated information law account on Twitter.

Openness by design: ICO’s draft access to information strategy

The Information Commissioner’s Office has published a draft access to information strategy [pdf] and is inviting comments on it. The document opens by explaining that over the next three years the ICO has the ambition to be “more proactive and increase the impact of” regulation in respect of the Freedom of Information Act 2000 (“FOIA”) and the Environmental Information Regulations 2004 (“EIRs”).

The document is intended to be read in conjunction with the ICO’s ‘Regulatory Action Policy’, which was consulted on last year (and covers all of the legislation that the Commissioner is tasked with enforcing, not just FOIA and the EIRs).

The draft strategy gives the impression that the ICO intends to become more proactive in its enforcement of FOIA and the EIRs – especially in relation to “systematic non-compliance”. This could mean that the ICO intends become more formal in its enforcement action. So we will need to wait and see how it pans out.

The other matter within the draft strategy that is worthy of note (although it really is worthwhile taking the time to read the whole document – it’s not a lengthy one) is the section which discusses the changes that have occurred since FOIA and the EIRs were enacted. In particular the draft strategy indicates that a report to Parliament will be published later this month “making recommendations for change in relation to outsourced public services and some other categories of public service provision that are not within the scope of the current legislation.” Quite what will happen with such a report, given that Parliament is pretty tied up with Brexit related matters, is unclear; however, it should be worth looking at – especially if you’re involved in the provision of public services under contract.

The ICO is inviting comments on the draft strategy document until 8th March 2019 and comments can be submitted via the ICO website.

Registered Social Landlords and FOI

Yesterday, the Scottish Government began a consultation on legislation to formally designate Registered Social Landlords (RSLs) as Scottish public authorities for the purposes of the Freedom of Information (Scotland) Act 2002 (“FOISA”).  The draft Order being consulted on proposes a commencement date of 1st April 2019.

This is not an unexpected development in the field of information law.  In December 2016 the Scottish Government consulted on the principle of designating RSLs as public authorities for the purposes of FOISA.  It has been widely anticipated that RSLs would be designated as a public authority for the purposes of FOISA.

A designation as a public authority for the purposes of FOISA will have ramifications for RSLs beyond the obvious need to comply with FOISA and being under the regulatory oversight of the Scottish Information Commissioner.  It will also have implications for RSLs in respect of how they implement the General Data Protection Regulation (“GDPR”), which becomes applicable from 25th May 2018.

There are a number of aspects of the GDPR which are directed towards public bodies.  The Data Protection Bill currently before the UK Parliament defines what a public body is for the purposes of the GDPR.  Clause 6 of the Bill provides that a body which is designated as a Scottish public authority for the purposes of the FOISA is a public body.  This will mean that RSLs will have to appoint a Data Protection Officer; even although many of them would not have had to before this decision was taken by the Scottish Government.

It also has implications for the grounds upon which they can legitimately process personal data.  Processing of personal data for the purpose of pursuing a legitimate interest of the controller is permissible under the GDPR.  However, the GDPR goes on to provide that public bodies cannot rely upon legitimate interest as a ground of processing in performance of their tasks.  Therefore, any RSL that has been preparing for the GDPR on the basis that they will be able to process personal data on the legitimate interests ground will have to re-evaluate its processing of personal data ahead of its designation as a public authority for the purposes of FOISA.

It is worthy of note, simply for interest, that the Data Protection Bill proposes giving the Secretary of State the power to make regulations which state that a public body is not in fact a public body for the purposes of the GDPR.  However, there has been no indication that the Secretary of State intends on making use of this power or how the power is intended to be used; therefore, it is probably advisable not to work on the basis that a RSLs will be declared not to be public bodies for the purposes of the GDPR.

Another possible implication for RSLs is in relation to the Environmental Information (Scotland) Regulations 2004 (“the EIRs”).  The Scottish Information Commissioner has already previously decided that RSLs are public authorities for the purpose of these regulations, which govern access to environmental information.  The Housing (Amendment) (Scotland) Bill may have implications for the basis upon which the Commissioner concluded that RSLs were a public authority for the purposes of the EIRs.  If it does, there may be a gap where RSLs are not public authorities for the purposes of EIRs.  Once they become designated as a public authority for the purposes of FOISA, they will automatically become a public authority for the purposes of the EIRs as well.

Alistair Sloan

If you would like advice or assistance in respect of a freedom of information or data protection matter then contact Alistair Sloan on 0345 450 0123.  Alternatively, you can send him an E-mail.

More is less and less is more

On 30th October 2017 the First-Tier Tribunal (Information Rights) promulgated its decision in McGoldrick v The Information Commissioner; the Tribunal’s decision made two points which it is worth considering.  The request for information in question was made to HM Treasure concerning the Mersey Tunnels; the full terms of the request for information are set out in the Tribunal’s decision.

The first point relates to the use of section 12 of the Freedom of Information Act 2000 where some of the information that may fall within the scope of the request is likely to be environmental information; and the second is on the duty of a public authority to provide advice and assistance.

On the first issue, the Tribunal (at paragraph 12) states that it

“agrees with the Information Commissioner that the appellant’s request could cover both non-environment and environmental information, for the purposes of regulation 2(1)(c) but that it would defeat the purpose behind section 12 and regulation 12(4)(d) if a public authority were obliged to collate the requested information in order to ascertain what information fell under either FOIA or the EIR. We agree, therefore, that HM Treasury was correct to consider the request under section 12, even though it might include some environmental information.”

The Tribunal considers that it is appropriate for an authority to not separately identify environmental information and deal with that under the Environmental Information Regulations 2004 where there is a substantial volume of information which covers both environmental and non-environmental information.  It seems that the Tribunal is of the view that there is no need to issue a refusal notice citing Regulation 12(4)(b) [although the Tribunal refers to Regulation 12(4)(d), but this seems as though it may be a typographical error] where a request is going to exceed the appropriate limit and it is likely that there is going to be environmental information within the ambit of the request.

On the second issue, the Tribunal decided that, on the facts of the present case, that HM Treasure did not comply with its obligation to provide adequate advice and assistance and overturned the Commissioner’s decision that it had.  In this case, HM Treasure told the requester that he might like to consider refining his request by reducing the amount of information requested.  The Commissioner considered that such a suggestion was sufficient in order to discharge the authority’s duty to provide advice and assistance.

At paragraph 18 of the Tribunal’s decision it stated:

“Given the widespread nature of computer-driven searches for information in connection with FOIA requests, it is, we consider, reasonable to expect large, sophisticated organisations, such as HM Treasury, to point out to requesters how the most thorough search is likely to exceed the relevant financial limit under the Regulations made by reference to section 12, and to suggest a reformulation of the request in terms specific to computerised searches. Accordingly, if HM Treasury had asked the appellant to reformulate his request by reference to emails and documents containing both the terms “Mersey tunnel” and “toll”, the appellant may well have reformulated his request.”

The Tribunal appears to be suggesting that a large public authority may have to go a bit further than a smaller authority in order to discharge its duty to provide advice and assistance.  It appears that, in certain cases, it may be necessary for a public authority to not only suggest that a requester reformulate their request but rather to go further and actually suggest ways in which it could be reformulated; especially when computer-driver searches for information are involved.

This certainly does fit with the way in which the legislation has been drafted; Section 12(1) of the Freedom of Information Act 2000 does include “so far as it would be reasonable to expect the authority to do so” within its terms.  So, where an authority is issuing a refusal notice under Section 12 of the Freedom of Information Act 2000 authorities, especially larger ones, ought to consider whether they are capable of suggesting how a request could be refined, not just that the requester may wish to consider refining it.

Alistair Sloan

We are able to provide advice and assistance in connection with a range of Freedom of Information matters, including appeals against decisions of both the Scottish and UK Information Commissioners.  If you would like to do discuss a Freedom of Information, or any other Information Law, matter with us then you can contact Alistair Sloan on 0345 450 0123.  Alternatively, you can send him an E-mail.