Clifford Chance lobbies for tightening of Information Act

Clifford Chance is to lobby the Cabinet Office for a tightening up of the proposed Freedom of Information Act to allow companies to make a case for preventing the release of documents.

The proposals, outlined in a White Paper published before Christmas, 'go much further than many had expected', said Richard Thomas, the director of public policy at Clifford Chance.

The White Paper expressly states that the public should know the cost of public services, even if these are provided under contract to a private company.

This will, for the first time, reveal the annual fees public bodies pay contractors in Private Finance Initiative (PFI) contracts. The secrecy of such contracts has long been attacked by critics of PFI who say the taxpayer may be getting a raw deal.

In a circular to clients, Thomas asks: 'How will the new arrangements prevent the disclosure of detailed financing and other pricing information which could cause considerable commercial damage if placed in the public domain?'

Talking to The Lawyer, he said: 'Most of the existing documentation involving PFI contracts has been subjected to extensive confidentiality restrictions.'

Thomas added that public bodies were imposing them on contractors for fear companies might use price information to slightly undercut rivals.

Equally, he said, private contractors did not want sensitive information, such as their profit margins, to be known to their competitors.

A completely different problem is faced by companies under investigation by regulatory bodies, he said. Even if these companies are eventually exonerated, 'possible fatal damage could occur just by disclosure of the fact of the investigation', said Thomas.

But Thomas, who used to be an investigator at the Office of Fair Trading, agreed that the Act was likely to get rid of a 'patchwork quilt' of often contradictory arrangements among the various regulators. He said: 'At the OFT there were some areas where it was my duty to publish information and others where it was a criminal offence to publish information.'

He added that the act would also provide much work for lawyers advising companies which wanted help getting information on their rivals and those that wanted to prevent it being published.