Standard to attack govt on FOI exemptions

The Freedom of Information Act will face its biggest test today, as the Government readies its appeal against the Evening Standard and the Information Commissioner.

The two parties will do battle in the Information Tribunal, arguing over whether the Information Commissioner was right to allow a freedom of information request from Evening Standard education correspondent Dominic Hayes.

The case concerns section 35 of the Act, which makes any information on the development of policy exempt from disclosure.

Hayes asked for information on the minutes of meetings within the Department of Education and Schools concerning the schools funding crisis of 2003.

The Information Commissioner granted the request in 2005, even though the information related to the development of Government policy, ruling that the public interest lay in disclosing the information.

The Government is arguing that the information should be covered by the section 35 exemption and the DfES has resisted the request for two years.

Keith Mathieson, the partner at Reynolds Porter Chamberlain acting for the Evening Standard, said: “One of the most important FOI exemptions that the Government relies on is section 35. The Government regards policy discussions as private.”

Mathieson said it is one of the first times section 35 has been fought over.

“The Government wants the widest possible interpretation of the exemption, and we are arguing for a narrow interpretation. We think the public interest lies in knowing about these things,” he said.

Mathieson has instructed Anthony White QC of Matrix Chambers.

The Information Commissioner has instructed Tim Pitt-Payne from 11 King’s Bench Walk. Meanwhile, the Government has instructed Jonathan Crow QC of 4 Stone Buildings and Jason Coppel of 11 King’s Bench Walk.

A two day hearing will take place today and tomorrow.