Your browser is no longer supported

For the best possible experience using our website we recommend you upgrade to a newer version or another browser.

Your browser appears to have cookies disabled. For the best experience of this website, please enable cookies in your browser

We'll assume we have your consent to use cookies, for example so you won't need to log in each time you visit our site.
Learn more

OFFICIALS CONFUSED ABOUT ACCESS TO GOVERNMENT INFORMATION

  • Comment
The parliamentary ombudsman William Reid says that there continues to be confusion among government officials about...
The parliamentary ombudsman William Reid says that there continues to be confusion among government officials about how to operate the Code of Practice on Access to Government Information (the Code). In a report published he gives his findings on four complaints that government departments and other public bodies refused requests for information.

The ombudsman said: 'I find that some officials are unclear about how the exemptions to disclosure in Part II of the Code should be applied. In some cases, inappropriate exemptions are cited, in others refusals are simply not related to any exemption at all. My investigation reports should promote a better understanding of this aspect of the Code's operation.

'I have received relatively few complaints about the Code, although it is now over two years since it was introduced. That may reflect a continuing lack of awareness among the public of its existence. I note that the government has now taken steps to give the Code renewed and wider publicity'.

Under the Code government departments have to provide information requested unless certain conditions apply, for example that it could prove harmful to individuals or national security if the information sought were released. The ombudsman deals with complaints referred by members of parliament that refusals arc unreasonable or charges for the provision of information are excessive.

The department of transport refused to disclose the prices at which 27 British Rail businesses were sold to buyers in the private sector, claiming that disclosure might damage negotiations on future sales. When the ombudsman intervened, DOT said the information would eventually be made public but argued that for the time being they could withhold it under two exemptions in the Code.

The ombudsman did not accept that the information related to 'third party's commercial confidences'. He did accept that, at the time DOT refused the request, the exemption covering 'effective management and operations of the public service' had applied - but only where a business already sold resembled one which remained to be sold. He found that four of the businesses sold did not fall into that category. DOT then agreed to disclose the sales proceeds of those four businesses. At the end of his investigation, the ombudsman asked DOT if they were able to release more of the information. They have now done so.

The Health and Safety Executive refused to disclose the full contents of warning letters to a contractor. HSE said the request could not be considered until the man seeking the information had started legal proceedings when they provided copies with some deletions. The ombudsman found that HSE were mistaken in thinking that the Code did not apply to the request but they were entitled to refuse under the Code exemption relating to information the disclosure of which would prejudice legal proceedings.

A man asked the Housing Corporation to let him see their correspondence about him with a housing association. The chief executive refused because it was the corporation's standard practice not to disclose information supplied to them by a third party. He later told the ombudsman that he regarded the request as 'vexatious' within the terms of an exemption in the Code. The ombudsman rejected that proposition because only a single request had been made. However, he accepted that two exemptions regarding information whose disclosure 'would harm the frankness and candour of internal discussion' and 'information supplied in confidence' applied to all the material on the corporation's file.

The ombudsman found that the Keeper of the Registers of Scotland was entitled to refuse a request for information relating to communications about a boundary dispute. The information sought related to the proceedings of the Lands Tribunal for Scotland and was therefore within the scope of the Code exemption relating to court and tribunal proceedings. He criticised the Keeper for failing to quote the Code when originally refusing the request. He did not accept that all third party communications to the Registers of Scotland were necessarily exempt from disclosure.

-- Parliamentary Commissioner for Administration. Selected Cases 1996 Access to Official Information HC 593 HMSO £4.70 ISBN 010 282963.

  • Comment

Have your say

You must sign in to make a comment

Please remember that the submission of any material is governed by our Terms and Conditions and by submitting material you confirm your agreement to these Terms and Conditions.

Links may be included in your comments but HTML is not permitted.