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Veolia and the reverse-FOI

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Martin Rosenbaum | 15:15 UK time, Thursday, 1 October 2009

Disputes over access to information are usually between someone who wants to find something out and a public authority who doesn't want to tell them - but sometimes they involve someone else, who is the subject of the information and wants to stop an authority releasing it.

In the jargon of the FOI world this manoeuvre - trying to prevent a public body from disclosing material - is called a "reverse-FOI". And there's been an interesting example today.

The major waste management company Veolia has just lost its legal battle to block Nottinghamshire Council from revealing data to a local environmental activist, Shlomo Dowen. The High Court has this afternoon rejected Veolia's judicial review action against the council.

Smoke coming from incinerator chimneyMr Dowen has been campaigning against the company's plans to build a new incinerator and is the co-ordinator of the UK Without Incineration Network. He was represented in this case by Friends of the Earth.

He wants to see the full financial details of the waste disposal contract between Veolia and the council. In the summer he had arranged to visit the council offices to inspect documents relating to financial transactions with Veolia.

He argues this is in line with the Audit Commission Act. As I've noted before, for a brief period each year this gives local electors a little-used right of access to council financial information which is well beyond that guaranteed by the Freedom of Information Act. (If you want to take advantage yourself, the best guide is provided by the Orchard News Bureau).

But Veolia then obtained an interim injunction to prevent the council showing him the material. The company argued that it contained commercially sensitive information and releasing this would damage the business in relation to its competitors.

The High Court has now dismissed the company's case. Mr Justice Cranston ruled that Mr Dowen was entitled to see the material in question, despite Veolia's contention that it would lead to a breach of commercial confidentiality. The judge said:

"The obligation to pay local taxation through the rates was matched by the right given to rate-payers to an involvement in the process of ensuring the money was well spent... In my judgement, it is entirely unsurprising that given its history the law should permit a local elector such as Mr Dowen sight of the disputed documents in this case. The historic role of interested persons such as local government electors in participating in the audit process would be severely diminished without such disclosure."

This decision has been welcomed by the Audit Commission, which monitors value for money in local government.

Veolia have not responded to my requests for their reaction.

Update, 16:00: Veolia have issued the following statement:

"We first requested a legal ruling on this issue because we wanted to give clarity to local authorities, the general public and the waste management industry. The company accepts the judgement of the court and we do not plan to appeal. We look forward to delivering the next phase of the Nottinghamshire PFI waste management and recycling contract and will continue to build on the achievements of the last three years."


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