Public bodies & consultants

The Environmental Information Regulations places a duty to disclose information on public bodies, unless one of the exemptions in the Regulations applies. One of these exemptions covers to internal communications. The Information First-tier Tribunal has ruled that reports produced by a consultant expert for a local authority were not covered by the “internal communications” exception under the Regulations. The consultant had written reports for the council on its proposed office relocation; and these reports, together with meeting minutes relating to the relocation, had been requested under the EIR.

The Tribunal rejected the council’s argument that the consultant was sufficiently “embedded” within it for his reports to constitute internal communications, since the consultant was always under an obligation to report back to his external employer and his reports were issued in his employer’s name. The Tribunal also noted that the Aarhus convention requires that exceptions to the duty to disclose environmental information are interpreted restrictively.
The Tribunal stated that there was not a standard test for what constitutes internal or external communications, but it approved the Information Commissioner’s statement that there are extremely limited circumstances in which communications with a third party can be considered “internal”.

The Tribunal also considered the council’s alternative arguments that redactions should be made within the reports before they were disclosed, under the “course of justice” and commercial confidentiality exceptions. It accepted some of these arguments based on each piece of information in question. The Tribunal criticised the council’s failure to pay sufficient attention to exactly what information it had provided.