Tag Archives: EIR

Porsches, farts and environmental information

A quick post on what I think is a rather remarkable Information Tribunal ruling.

The First-tier Tribunal (Information Rights) (“FTT”) has recently handed down a judgment on a case relating to a request for information sent to the Driver and Vehicle Standards Agency (DVSA) about a safety evaluation of an apparent throttle malfunction in the Porsche Cayman. The request was refused by DVSA on the grounds that section 44 of the Freedom of Information Act 2000 (FOIA) provided an absolute exemption to disclosure, by way of existing restrictions on disclosure of this kind of information within the Enterprise Act 2002. Upon appeal, the Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) upheld this refusal (pointing out that in fact the correct public authority was not the DVSA, but rather the Department of Transport, of which DVSA is an executive agency).

However, when the request exercised his right of appeal to the FTT, he introduced an argument that in fact the proper regime under which his request should have been considered was the Environmental Information Regulations 2004 (EIR) rather than FOIA, on the grounds that his request concerned an activity that directly affected the environment, namely an activity to regulate vehicle noise emissions. The ICO resisted this, on the basis that

the disputed information concerned a safety test of a certain vehicle “which is not an activity which affects, or is likely to affect, the elements and factors described in Regulation 2(1)(a) or (b) EIR”

This in itself was an interesting argument, touching on issues regarding the Glawischnig remoteness test. This refers to the judgment of the Court of Justice of the European Union in the 2003 case C-316/01 (Eva Glawischnig and Bundesminister für soziale Sicherheit und Generationen) which, observing that Article 2(a) of Directive 90/313 (to which the EIR give UK domestic effect)

classifies information relating to the environment within the meaning of that directive in three categories: information on the state of water, air, soil, fauna, flora, land and natural sites (‘the first category’), information on activities or measures affecting or likely to affect those environmental factors (‘the second category’), and information on activities or measures designed to protect those factors (‘the third category’)

said that

Directive 90/313 is not intended…to give a general and unlimited right of access to all information held by public authorities which has a connection, however minimal, with one of the environmental factors mentioned in Article 2(a). To be covered by the right of access it establishes, such information must fall within one or more of the three categories set out in that provision. [Emphasis added]

However, the FTT in the instant case decided, contrary to the positions of all the parties that “the safety test in this case is not an activity, which can be said to affect the elements of the environment” (the appellant was arguing essentially that “his request concerned an activity that directly affected the environment, namely an activity to regulate vehicle noise emissions”), the EIR were engaged merely because the safety test first required a car to be started, which by extension meant that started engine would produce emissions:

in order to test the issue complained of (i.e. the vehicle throttle response under specific conditions) the vehicle must be driven, or at the very least the engine must be running.
Consequently, by conducting the safety test:
– the DVSA caused emissions by driving the vehicle (r.2(1)(b));
– at the very least those emissions affected the air (r.2(1)(a));
– they did so through a measure (a safety test) which was likely to affect the elements (air) (r.2(1)(c));

But following this argument, the EIR would tend give the public, pace the ruling of the CJEU in Glawischnig, “a general and unlimited right of access to all information held by public authorities which has a connection, however minimal, with [the environment]”? Information, say, held by the DVLA on the number of people who passed their driving test first time would be environmental because by running the driving test the DVLA caused emissions by requiring the tester to drive the car, at the very least those emissions affected the air and they did so through a measure (a driving test) which was likely to affect the elements (air). Or consider DEFRA conducting TB tests on cattle – in order to conduct the test the inspector must travel to a farm, and by doing so DEFRA cause emissions by causing a vehicle to be driven (or a train ride to be taken etc). At the very least those emissions affect the air, and they do so through a measure which is likely to affect the elements (air). Or this: in order to deliver mail, the Royal Mail must drive vehicles which cause emissions. At the very least those emissions affect the air, and they do so through a measure (their policy to use motor vehicles to deliver the mail) which is likely to affect the elements.

What next? Is information on the statement about the benefits of dietary fibre in the human diet environmental information, because by giving it the Department of Health caused more farts (emissions) which affect the air through a measure (the statement) which was likely to affect the (elements) air?

Maybe I’m being silly, but I don’t think I am. Rather, I think the FTT are, and I wonder if the judgment will be appealed.

The views in this post (and indeed all posts on this blog) are my personal ones, and do not represent the views of any organisation I am involved with..

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One for the Environmental Information Regulations + Data Protection nerds

In 2010 the Court of Justice of the European Union (CJEU) held that, insofar as they required the automatic publication of the name and other particulars of natural persons (as opposed to legal persons) of beneficiaries of funds deriving from the European Agricultural Guarantee Fund (EAGF) and the European Agricultural Fund for Rural Development (EAFRD), certain articles of European Council Regulation (EC) No 1290/2005 of 21 June 2005 on the financing of the common agricultural policy were invalid. This was because they imposed an obligation to publish personal data relating to these beneficiaries (who might be private individuals or sole traders) without permitting criteria such as the periods, frequency and amounts involved to be considered.

Rip-roaring start to a blog post eh?

In the words of the First-tier Tribunal (Information Rights) (FTT) which has recently had to consider the impact of those CJEU cases on an Environmental Information Regulations 2004 (EIR) case

[the CJEU] ruled that such a requirement for publication was incompatible with an individual’s right for privacy where the agreement holder concerned was a private individual or sole trade

The relevance of the European judgments was that Natural England, which had until 2010 published information about beneficiaries of funds granted to farmers and landowners under the European Stewardship Agreement (ESA), even when it consisted of personal data of private individual or sole trader beneficiaries, ceased such automatic publication and removed previously published information from its website. This was despite the fact applicants for an ESA had, until 2010, been given a privacy notice in a handbook which explained that the information would be published, and had signed a declaration accepting the requirements.

Notwithstanding this, when it received a request for agreements reached with farmers and landowners in the River Avon flood plains area, Natural England decided that the personal data of the beneficiary (there appears to have just been one) was exempt from disclosure under regulations 12(3) and 13 of the EIR (which broadly provide an exception to the general obligation under the EIR to disclose information if the information in question is personal data disclosure of which would be in breach of the public authority’s obligations under the Data Protection Act 1998 (DPA)).

The Information Commissioner’s Office had agreed, saying

although consent for disclosure has been obtained [by virtue of the applicant’s declaration of acceptance of the handbook’s privacy notice], circumstances have changed since that consent was obtained. As Natural England’s current practice is not to publish the names of those who have received grants with the amounts received, the Commissioner is satisfied that the expectation of the individuals concerned will be that their names and payments will not be made public.

However, the FTT was not convinced by this. Although it accepted that it was possible “that the applicant no longer expected the relevant personal data to be disclosed” it considered whether this would nevertheless be a reasonable expectation, and it also took into account that the effect of the CJEU’s decision had not been expressly to prohibit disclosure (but rather that the validity of automatic publication had been struck down):

When one combined the facts that an express consent had been given, that there had been no publicity by NE or mention on its website of the ECJ decision and finally, that the effect of that decision had not, in the event been to prohibit disclosure, [the FTT] concluded that such an expectation would not be reasonable

Furthermore, given that there was no real evidence that disclosure would cause prejudice or distress to the applicant, given that some identifying information had already been disclosed into the public domain and given that there was a legitimate interest – namely “accountability in the spending of public monies” – in the information being made public (and disclosure was necessary to meet this legitimate interest) the disclosure was both fair and supported by a permitting condition in Schedule 2 of the DPA. For these reasons, disclosure would not, said the FTT, breach Natural England’s obligation to process personal data fairly under the first data protection principle.

So maybe not the most ground-breaking of cases, but it is relatively rare that an FTT disagrees with the ICO and orders disclosure of personal data under the EIR (or FOI). The latter is, after all, the statutory regulator of the DPA, and its views on such matters will normally be afforded considerable weight by any subsequent appellate body.

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The FOI ministerial veto – why not?

The Court of Appeal has ordered disclosure of private correspondence between Prince Charles and the government. The judgment is potentially a triumph for transparency, but I have my doubts whether it reflects Parliament’s intentions when passing the FOI Act. And there will be a further appeal…

In September 2012 the Administrative Appeals Chamber of the Upper Tribunal (UT) handed down a judgment which struck me then, as it does now, as a remarkable work of research and scholarship. It was ruling on requests by the Guardian journalist Rob Evans – made as far back as April 2005 – under the Freedom of Information Act 2000 (FOIA) and the Environmental Information Regulations 2004 (EIR) for disclosure of information in private letters sent by the Prince of Wales to government ministers on matters of official policy. The UT’s judgment ran to 65 pages with three annexes, went into detailed analysis of constitutional conventions regarding the heir to the throne, and its decision was that the correspondence should be disclosed (overturning the prior decisions of the Information Commissioner (IC)). Subsequently, the Attorney General issued a certificate under section 53 FOIA – a “ministerial veto” – whose effect was to disapply the UT’s decision. The Attorney General’s certificate, in rather wider-spaced text, ran to ten pages.

Section 53 requires only that the accountable person (a minister)

gives the [Information] Commissioner a certificate signed by him stating that he has on reasonable grounds formed the opinion [that there had not been a failure to comply with the FOIA]

It is, as I’ve argued before , a bludgeon of an executive weapon, but it is, as are all acts of public authorities, potentially amenable to judicial review. So it was that, despite any statutory right of appeal, the Guardian made such an application. However, in July 2013, the High Court effectively decided that, although the ministerial power to override a superior court of record (let alone the statutory decision-maker, in the form of the IC) appeared to be a “constitutional aberration”, the proposition that “the accountable person is not entitled simply to prefer his own view to that of the tribunal” must be rejected. As Davis LJ said (para 111)

why not? It is inherent in the whole operation of s.53 that the accountable person will have formed his own opinion which departs from the previous decision (be it of Information Commissioner, tribunal or court) and may certify without recourse to an appeal. As it seems to me, therefore, disagreement with the prior decision (be it of Information Commissioner, tribunal or court) is precisely what s.53 contemplates, without any explicit or implicit requirement for the existence of fresh evidence or of irrationality etc. in the original decision which the certificate is designed to override

However, Davis LJ refused to accept that the wording of section 53 (“…stating that he has on reasonable grounds formed the opinion…”) permitted of an interpretation that:

the accountable person can, as it were, self-certify as to the availability of reasonable grounds

rather,

In my view, the language chosen clearly is sufficient to connote that an objective test is to be applied

But how to conduct that objective test? For Davis LJ, it must be that the reasonable grounds are “cogent”:

if an accountable person is to interfere, by way of exercise of the power of executive override, with the decision of an independent judicial body then that accountable person must be prepared and able to justify doing so. I am reluctant to talk in terms of burden of proof. But in terms of burden of argument the burden is in practice on the accountable person to show that the grounds for certifying are reasonable

Lord Dyson in the Court of Appeal has taken issue with this, saying (para 38) that

I do not consider that it is reasonable for an accountable person to issue a section 53(2) certificate merely because he disagrees with the decision of the tribunal. Something more is required […]
Examples of “something more” are given as
a material change of circumstances since the tribunal decision or that the decision of the tribunal was demonstrably flawed in fact or in law
Accordingly, as the Attorney General failed to give this “something more” but “simply disagreed with the evaluation made by the UT”, he failed to give reasons amounting to “reasonable grounds”. Thus (putting to one side a crucial other ground on which the appeal succeeded, relating to the EIR and European law, which I will deal with in a later blog post) the certificate had to be quashed.

As Dr Mark Elliot argues Lord Dyson here “adopted a significantly more exacting conception of reasonableness” than had the High Court and I would commend Dr Elliot’s piece to you as an expert analysis I am not competent to give.

However – and it pains me to say it, because I really don’t like section 53 – wasn’t it precisely Parliament’s intention that the accountable person did “merely” have to state that he had formed – on reasonable grounds – a different opinion to the preceding tribunal? If he cannot arrive at a different opinion, in the absence of “something else”, isn’t section 53 fundamentally weakened, even sidestepped? Indeed, Lord Dyson in my view arrives at this point, when he says

On the approach of the Divisional Court to section 53(2), the accountable person can override the decision of an independent and impartial tribunal which (i) is reasonable, (ii) is the product of a detailed examination (fairly conducted) of the issues after an adversarial hearing at which all parties have been represented and (iii) is not challenged on appeal. All that is required is that the accountable person gives sensible and rational reasons for disagreeing with the tribunal’s conclusion. If section 53(2) has that effect, it is a remarkable provision not only because of its constitutional significance (the point emphasised by the Divisional Court), but also because it seriously undermines the efficacy of the rights of appeal accorded by sections 57 and 58 of the FOIA
to which I am tempted to respond, adopting Davis LJ’s rhetorical device, “why not?” – that seems to have been what Parliament intended.

No doubt we shall see this explored more – the Attorney General is reported to have sought, and been given, leave to appeal to the Supreme Court.

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One for the insomniacs – Upper Tribunal on EIRs and commercial confidentiality

In May 2012 I blogged about a case in the First-tier Tribunal (Information Rights) (FTT).  It was an appeal by  Swansea Friends of the Earth against a decision of the Information Commissioner (IC) not to require the Environment Agency to disclose  information relating to financial guarantee arrangements put in place a landfill site operator, as a condition for obtaining a permit to operate a waste landfill site near Swansea.

I was critical of the FTT’s approach to breach of confidence, as it applies to the Environmental Information Regulations 2004 (EIR). However, with the handing down of judgment by the Upper Tribunal, following an appeal by Natural Resources Wales, as successor to the Environment Agency, I see I was wrong on two points (one minor, one major), right on another, and my key point was left undecided. Exciting stuff folks – hold on to your hats!

My minor error was to repeat the FTT’s description of Megarry J’s classic tri-partite breach of confidence test in Coco v A N Clark (Engineers) Ltd [1969] RPC 44 as being a common law doctrine. As the Upper Tribunal points out

That, to be correct, is a decision about the equitable doctrine of confidential communication (not the common law) that may arise otherwise than by contract between the parties

Silly me. Silly FTT.

Natural Resources Wales argued before the Upper Tribunal that

there was a statutory obligation in place [militating against disclosure], so that the Agency did not have to rely on equitable grounds

And this goes to my major error, which was to overlook, in striving to make a point of general application about the modern development of the law of confidence, that in this specific case the IC’s original Decision Notice had found that information in question was confidential for the purposes of Regulation 12(5)(e) of the EIR firstly because the provisions of the Pollution Prevention and Control (England and Wales) Regulations 2000 (PPCR) (which were the regulations – since revoked and remade – which applied to the licence in question) effectively made it so, and only secondly because the information and the circumstances by which it came into the Environment Agency’s control met the Coco v Clark tests.

Regulation 12(5)(e) provides that

a public authority may refuse to disclose information to the extent that its disclosure would adversely affect…the confidentiality of commercial or industrial information where such confidentiality is provided by law to protect a legitimate economic interest

The Upper Tribunal held that the FTT had erred in law, saying (paragraphs 51-52), as had the IC in the first instance, that relevant provisions of the PPCR meant that confidentiality was “provided by law to protect a legitimate economic interest”:

disclosure of the relevant information would adversely affect confidentiality “where such confidentiality is provided by law to protect a legitimate economic interest”… Here that must be regarded as a reference across to regulation 31 of the 2000 Regulations. Regulation 31(1)(a) makes an express reference to commercial confidentiality. The factual background to these appeals makes it plain that the figures in question here were figures produced within the 2000 Regulations framework and were subject to the necessary application and ruling to protect confidentiality of them

So it was not necessary to consider whether the information was also covered by the equitable doctrine of confidence.

The point on which I was right (in my original post) was regarding whether, or the extent to which, regulation 12(5)(e) of the EIR was directly comparable to the similar section 41 of the Freedom of Information Act 2000 (FOIA). I said

This extension of the FOIA confidentiality principles into the EIR is controversial…

and the Upper Tribunal judge says

the tests in section 41 and regulation 12 are separate and cannot be read together to include in one something in the other simply because they deal with similar issues

which is pretty unequivocal (and see also Chichester District Council v IC and Friel (GIA 1253 2011), cited as authority for the lack of analogy between the two).

Finally, another point I hadn’t addressed (although Phil Bradshaw did, in the comments to my original post) concerns the failure by the FTT to distinguish between the location of information in documents, with the information itself. The FTT had said

the information came into existence through a process of negotiation between the parties

but this surely was not the case – rather, documents, containing information, came into existence through a process of negotiation. But the information itself was caught by regulation 12(5)(e)

the focus is on this information, not on any particular document or form in which those figures are recorded or any process by which they emerged. I accordingly agree with the challengers that in so far as the First-tier Tribunal concerned itself with the specific location of those figures in specific documents produced as part of the licensing process rather than the information itself it was wrong in law

So there you have it. A rip-roaring convoluted run-through of why an obscure old blog post by me was slightly wrong and slightly right. I aim to please.

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