April 3, 2013 by combehavendefenders
Within the last week the Hastings Alliance (HA) has finally received a response from the Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) about its complaint concerning the redaction of the DfT’s recommendations and correspondence regarding whether or not to fund the Bexhill-Hastings Link Road (BHLR) (see copy of the letter below).
The ICO concluded that “most of the redacted information was incorrectly withheld” by the DfT “as the public interest favoured disclosing the information” and ordered the DfT to disclose some – but not all – of the redacted info in the relevant documents “within 35 calendar days of this decision notice” (dated 25 March 2013).
a) The public are not allowed to know which parts of which documents are going to be released (this info is contained in a “confidential annexe” to the decision notice that the public are not allowed to see). So it could be that the actual recommendations themselves will remain redacted – we just don’t know!
b) The DfT can appeal against this decision at any point up to 28 calendar days from the date of the decision notice.
All the more reason for Operation Disclosure!
BACKGROUND & ANALYSIS
The HA had originally applied for “copies of correpondence and documents concerning the Bexhill Hastings Link Road that were exchanged between the Department for Transport (DfT) and the Treasury prior to and following the announcement of the decision on Budget Day  to fund the road”.
The (partially redacted) documents that they received included two letters from DfT civil servants (dated 14 and 19 March 2012 respectively), some email correspondence between the DfT and the Treasury, and a copy of the DfT’s “Evidence Review” regarding the Road. Of these, only the “Evidence Review” was unredacted.
In the decision notice (date 26 March 2013), the ICO asserts that “some weight should be given to the argument that disclosure is likely to result in a chilling effect on” the “policy decisions … still required prior to full and final approval [for the Link Road’s funding] being given” (full and final approval was eventually announced on 3 April 2013), in part because of the “free and frank nature of the information” involved.
It also noted that the DfT had failed to explain “why disclosure would seriously undermine its ability to provide impartial advice to ministers on account of being concerned about the redactions or pressures from stakeholders”:
“In response the DfT said stakeholders in opposition included the Campaign for the Protection of Rural England; the Campaign for Better Transport; Hastings Alliance; Combe Haven Defenders and Friends of the Brede Valley. It said it could not predict with certainty the nature of their reactions but that one conservation group had pledged non-violent means to try and stop the scheme. The Campaign for Better Transport had also cited the scheme as an example of its national campaign to oppose road building plans. The Commissioner is not persuaded by either of the reasons submitted for withholding the information. Legitimate campaigning is an accepted part of the democratic and consultative process. The DfT has failed to explain why or how disclosure in this instance should give rise to any specific concern about the resulting behaviour on the part of the legitimate campaigners involved” (17. (ii) emphasis added).
The complete text of the decision is below.