What effect will the Court of Appeal’s recent decision on the FOI – and EIR – ministerial veto have on another recent case – the vetoing of the decision to require disclosure of the High Speed Rail assessment review?
On 6 June 2013 the Information Commissioner (IC) served a Decision Notice under the Environmental Information Regulations 2004 (EIR). Section 50(4) of the Freedom of Information Act 2000 (FOIA) gives the IC the power to do so (those powers being extended to the EIR by Regulation 18). The Decision Notice required the Cabinet Office to disclose a Project Assessment Review (“PAR”) report concerning the high-speed rail link, High Speed Two (HS2). On 30 January 2014 Patrick McCloughin, Secretary of State for Transport, signed a certificate pursuant to section 53 of FOI and Regulation 18(6) of the EIR. The effect of this certificate was that the Cabinet Office was no longer required to comply with the IC’s Decision Notice:
“the decision taken by the Cabinet Office not to disclose the PAR report in response to the relevant request was fully in accordance with the provisions of the EIR, or the Act, as appropriate”
Of course, this exercise of ministerial veto – described as a “constitutional aberration” by the Lord Chief Justice (Evans, R (on the application of) v HM Attorney General & Anor  EWHC 1960 (Admin)), is not unprecedented; the power has now been wielded seven times (twice by the Labour government and five times by the coalition). The minister, notably, was minded to disagree with the IC that the request had fallen to be determined under the EIR, rather than FOIA:
“there is considerable force in the Cabinet Office’s position that the information within the PAR report was insufficiently proximate to the environmental impact of the HS2 project itself to amount to “environmental information” for the purposes of the EIR”
However, he went on to say that:
“it is not necessary for me to determine whether the PAR report is environmental information, because I take the view that the Cabinet Office was entitled to withhold it from disclosure, whether or not it consisted of environmental information”
This is perhaps surprising, because at the time he issued that veto certificate there was an argument, being aired in the Court of Appeal, that the power to exercise the veto does not exist under the European law to which the EIR give domestic effect.
Now, the Court of Appeal has handed down judgment (Evans, R (on the application of) v HM Attorney General & Anor  EWCA Civ 254). The case is being recognised, correctly, as primarily about the specific lawfulness of the vetoing of the disclosure of private correspondence on policy matters between the Prince of Wales and government departments. However, as in the Divisional Court beforehand, one point which fell to be determined was about the general status of the veto power in relation to environmental information. On this point the Court of Appeal held that
“the certificate is incompatible with EU law in so far as the information to which it relates is environmental information”
The court’s reasoning was that, although, the EIR, by Regulation 18, provide for a ministerial veto no such power exists in the Directive 2003/4/EC of the European Parliament and of the Council of 28 January 2003 on public access to environmental information (“the Directive”) which is implemented in domestic legislation by the EIR. Moreover, Article 6(2) of the Directive says, crucially
Member States shall ensure that an applicant has access to a review procedure before a court of law or another independent and impartial body established by law, in which the acts or omissions of the public authority concerned can be reviewed and whose decisions may become final
And this requirement to have a “final” review before a court or independent and impartial body could not be satisfied by the availability of judicial review of a ministerial veto. Article 6(2) and (3) should be given their natural and ordinary meaning: the right is to have the acts or omissions of the public authority reviewed, but in judicial review proceedings the question becomes whether the accountable person had reasonable grounds for forming the opinion that the public authority had in fact complied with its EIR obligations and, “that difference is not a mere matter of form”. Moreover, and for broadly similar reasons, the veto power offended Article 47 of The EU Charter of Fundamental Rights which provides:
“Everyone whose rights and freedoms guaranteed by the law of the Union are violated has the right to an effective remedy before a tribunal in compliance with the conditions laid down in this Article”
So what does this mean for the veto on the HS2 “PAR” request? It certainly appears at the moment that following the Court of Appeal’s ratio in Evans, and to the extent that the HS2 request was for environmental information, that the veto may be unlawful, if (as has been suggested, it is challenged). However, there are two caveats to that. Firstly, the Attorney General has been given permission to appeal Evans to the Supreme Court: it seems highly likely that the general EIR point will be appealed, as well as the overarching specific point about the public law validity of the veto (if the former is not appealed, then it would mean in effect that the government accepts that the EIR fail properly to implement the Directive). Secondly, we must look back to the suggestion by the Minister when issuing the certificate in the HS2 veto that he tended to disagree with the IC that the information in question was environmental. Much, despite what he implied about the lack of need to determine this point, may now turn on this: if the information was environmental then Evans, providing the EIR point is not overturned by the Supreme Court, may well lead to the veto being struck down. If, however, the information was not environmental, and FOIA applied, then any appeal of it will presumably be on domestic public law grounds.
At this point it is probably otiose to start speculating on what will happen with requests which are classed as hybrid ones – namely, those which seek information which is a mix of environmental and non-environmental (as, indeed, those in both Evans and the HS2 case arguably are). All these matters are by no means yet resolved.
Jon Baines, who is Chairman of the National Association of Data Protection Officers (NADPO) and works in local government.
Ibrahim Hasan will be discussing this and other recent FOI decisions in the FOI Update workshops and online webinars.