Freedom of Information : This page has been downloaded from the Campaign for Freedom of Information "http://www.cfoi.org.uk/cc291097pr.html"
The Campaign for Freedom of Information

Press release
Embargoed 12.00 midday, Wednesday 29 October, 1997

 

Government departments "misguided" on commercial confidentiality.

 

Government departments have little understanding of the term "commercially confidential" and often cite this without good cause to keep information secret, according to the Campaign for Freedom of Information.

Some departments refuse to release the value of individual contracts with outside firms, claiming that this information is commercially confidential - yet other departments are happy to release such details. A survey of parliamentary answers (see Appendix) showed that:

The examples, which pre-date the election, were cited in paper by the Campaign's director, Maurice Frankel, at a conference on the implications for business of the government's proposed Freedom of Information (FOI) Act. (1)   He said "departments sometimes admit that they have no idea how to judge whether particular information is or is not commercially confidential, in the sense of revealing commercially valuable information to competitors. They just find it simpler to label all information about identifiable companies and products as secret". He said the government should adopt one of the principles applied under the American FOI legislation: openness is part of the price of doing business with government.

The Open Government code of practice, introduced in 1994, has sometimes helped people challenge such claims:

However, in other cases the Code had failed to elicit information, partly because it allows departments to withhold information which has been supplied to them voluntarily by companies, including such matters as reports into fatal accidents volunteered to the Health and Safety Executive by the firms concerned but not disclosed either by the HSE or the firm to the victim's family.

The Campaign said an FOI Act would need to define 'commercially confidential' strictly; ensure that this information could nevertheless be disclosed on public interest grounds; and avoid the code's "catch-all" which permits any information supplied in confidence to government by an outside body to be withheld.

The Campaign also criticised a two Department of Trade and Industry booklets (3)  published in 1996 which urged businesses to introduce a system of security classification to prevent the disclosure of virtually all their information. The approach, which appears to be directly based on the Whitehall system for classifying official secrets, suggests that most company information should be classed into one of three security bands. It proposes:

Mr Frankel said: "This approach is designed to encourage a culture of secrecy in which all inconvenient information is suppressed - a policy bound to generate suspicion and mistrust on the part of the public, and to damage a company's relations with the community. The two booklets stress the need to protect all information from disclosure but make no reference to the need to respond properly to legitimate requests from customers, local residents, employees, the press or anyone else affected by a company's operations."

The Campaign said that a Freedom of Information Act would give the public greater access to information about the way government regulated business, increasing the public's rights to information held about safety and environmental problems, the provision of services by privatised utilities, and many other matters. But it would also allow businesses themselves to obtain more information from government, opening up new commercial opportunities and giving them greater protection against arbitrary action by government.

 

Footnotes

1.  'The Proposed Freedom of Information Act. The Implications for Companies and Government'. The conference takes place on Wednesday 29 October at the Gloucester Hotel, London SW7, and is organised by City and Financial Conferences.

2.  Parliamentary Commissioner for Administration. First Report Session 1997-98, Selected Cases 1997 Volume 3. HC 132

3.  "Protecting business information: understanding the risks" and "Protecting business information: keeping it confidential". The booklets have been produced by a group of companies and government bodies on behalf of the DTI, and published by the DTI's Information Security Policy Group.

 


 

Appendix

In October 1994 (former) ministers were asked to identify and give the costs of each public opinion survey commissioned by their departments.

Most departments identified the survey titles and the bodies which carried them out, but several refused to give any information about costs at all:

Some gave a single aggregate figure for the total cost of all the surveys:

But some departments were prepared to give the cost of individual surveys:

 

In July 1995 (former) ministers were asked which firms of consultants employed by their departments had been paid more than £1,000 per day:

 

Ministers were asked about the contracts let to leading management consultancies:

 

Ministers were asked about the fees paid to headhunters for helping to fill particular posts:

 


 
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