16 April 2002

 

Q3 Alison Halford:

How many issues or pieces of information issued by or on behalf of the Welsh Assembly Government and individual Cabinet members have been considered as ‘commercially sensitive’ or ‘commercially confidential’ since the First Minister made a statement on freedom of information in March 2000? (OAQ16836)

The First Minister:

Requests for information are dealt with on a case by case basis. We do not hold information centrally on this topic. Our initial thoughts are that this information could only be obtained at disproportionate costs.

Alison Halford:

 We can be rightly proud of the Assembly, not least because it gives unparalleled access to Government information, as with your decision to release Cabinet papers and to impose the ‘substantial harm’ test on releasing documents. However, do you not feel that the use of commercial confidentiality is undermining the overall commitment to transparent Government? The Nolan report requires openness and accountability in public life. Does the First Minister have a view on whether a conflict of interest exists between the Assembly’s use of commercial confidentiality and the principles outlined in the Nolan report? Will you also assure me that I will not have to ask a plethora of questions to find out when the data ceases to be confidentially sensitive?The First Minister: As I said Alison, this is considered on a case by case basis. If you want to raise a particular case with me, I would be happy to consider it. I do not know of any conflict between freedom of information dispensation and commercial confidentiality anywhere in the world, including in Sweden, whose Government administers the most open and longstanding freedom of information dispensation. Commercially confidential matters must remain confidential. For instance, when a company wins a tender in an open competition, that is the basis on which it will do business. That tender would have been advertised throughout Europe in the contracts supplement of the Official Journal of the European Communities. Companies win tenders on that basis. To say that they must also agree to make public all the conditions involved in the contract, the price paid and so on is, in my opinion, quite a considerable additional burden. It is not applied in any other country in the world that has a strong freedom of information dispensation.
Janet Ryder: The cost of building the A55 across Anglesey was approximately £100 million. A total of £13 million was incurred in tolls in its first year, and these tolls must be paid for a further 27 years. That could lead to an estimated cost to the taxpayer of £364 million. When inquiries were made about those shadow tolls, your officials initially claimed that the details were commercially confidential. Why?

The First Minister:

That is how freedom of information works: you apply for information and you are given a reply. The reply can sometimes be based on a request by a company not to disclose information. The request is then given further consideration and it may eventually be decided to disclose the information. The request may, on occasion, be determined by the ombudsman, who may reach a finding of maladministration. Your unfamiliarity with the processes of government, Janet, leads me to conclude that you think that all information should automatically be made available. You must ask for it. The initial reply may be ‘no’; if you press further the reply could be ‘yes’. If the reply is still ‘no’ you must then apply to the ombudsman. That was the basis of my statement in March last year. I do not know whether you were in the Chamber on that day; perhaps you were not listening. The purpose of the system that I announced was to give power to the ombudsman to overrule Ministers on the disclosure of information which is deemed to be commercially sensitive or is, in some way, not covered by the Freedom of Information Act 2000. That is how the system works, Janet. I am sorry that you do not like it, do not understand it, or have not tried to understand it; please do better next time.
 

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