FOI 07-21: Correspondence between between John Blair MLA and the Assembly Bill Office
Information Standards Freedom of Information Response
Our Ref: FoI 07-21
13 May 2021
Freedom of Information Act 2000
I am writing in response to your Freedom of Information (FoIA) request received by the Northern Ireland Assembly Commission (Assembly Commission) on 15 February 2021. In your request you asked for the following information:
“I would wish to request all correspondence, written, email, transcripts of telephone conversations etc., between John Blair MLA and the Bills (legislation) section at Stormont from the period of 1st January 2020 until 8th February 2021.”
I can confirm that the Assembly Commission holds information relevant to your request. This information is exempt from disclosure under Section 36 of the FoIA. Please refer to Appendix A for further explanation.
You have the right to request a formal review by the Assembly Commission and if you wish to do so, please write to me at the above address.
If after such an internal review you are still unhappy with the response, you have the right to appeal to the Information Commissioner’s Office, Wycliffe House, Water Lane, Wilmslow, Cheshire SK9 5AF who will undertake an independent review.
The Assembly Commission may publish details of your FOI request and our official response within the organisational disclosure log. The request will be completely anonymised and you will not be identified in any way. This is to meet the requirements as laid out by in the agreed publication scheme with the Information Commissioners’ Office
If you have any queries about this letter, please contact me. Please remember to quote the reference number above.
INFORMATION STANDARDS & DATA PROTECTION OFFICER
FOI 07-21: “I would wish to request all correspondence, written, email, transcripts of telephone conversations etc., between John Blair MLA and the Bills (legislation) section at Stormont from the period of 1st January 2020 until 8th February 2021.”
Exemption Section 36(2)(b)(i) and (ii)
The information falling within the scope of your request has not been disclosed as it is exempt from disclosure under section 36 of the FoIA, specifically section 36(2)(b)(i) and 36(2)(b)(ii), as disclosure would be likely to prejudice both the free and frank provision of advice to Members and the free and frank exchange of views for the purposes of deliberation between Members and Assembly Commission staff.
The relevant parts of Section 36 state:
“(2) Information to which this section applies is exempt information if, in the reasonable opinion of a qualified person, disclosure of the information under this Act-
(b) would, or would be likely to, inhibit—
(i) the free and frank provision of advice, or
(ii) the free and frank exchange of views for the purposes of deliberation.”
We have sought the opinion of our qualified person; the Speaker. The Speaker is of the opinion that the exemptions at section 36(2)(b)(i) and section 36(2)(b)(ii) of the FOIA are engaged and has concluded that the disclosure of this information would be likely to prejudice the free and frank provision of advice to Members and the free and frank exchange of views for the purposes of deliberation between Members and Assembly Commission staff.
Section 36 of the FoIA is a qualified exemption, so it is necessary to consider the balance of the public interest.
Section 2(2) of the FoIA provides that where a qualified exemption applies, the requirement to disclose does not apply if and to the extent that, in all the circumstances of the case, the public interest in maintaining the exemption outweighs the public interest in disclosing the information.
The factors in favour of maintaining the exemption are:
- the disclosure of the correspondence in question would be likely to inhibit the free and frank provision of advice within the PMB process;
- Members may be reluctant to discuss Private Members Bills (“PMB’s”) on controversial or sensitive topics with officials if this information is disclosed prior to a Bill going to public consultation/being introduced. This could be detrimental to the Bill;
- the provision of advice and free exchange of views by officials is a major part of their roles, and is part of an established practice integral to the function of supported PMBs. The ability to offer free and frank advice, or enter into discussion with a degree of assurance that their comments will not be circulated more widely to the public or the parties is essential;
- disclosure would be likely to inhibit the ability of officials to express themselves openly, honestly and completely;
- officials may feel constrained about what they contribute to the process;
- disclosure may have a chilling effect on officials’ openness: this may therefore damage the quality of advice and may impair the robustness of the PMB preparation process.
The factors in favour of disclosing the information are:
- maintaining the accountability and transparency of the work undertaken by the Members;
- promotion of public understanding in the inner workings of the Assembly,
- the safeguarding of democratic processes by transparency.
Having considered the public interest in disclosure and the public interest in maintaining the exemption under section 36(2) FOIA, the Assembly Commission is satisfied that, in all of the circumstances of this case, the public interest in disclosing the information is outweighed by the public interest in maintaining the exemption provided for under section 36(2) FOIA.