The government is to appeal to the high court against a ruling that it must publish “gateway reviews” on the progress of its £5.3bn ID card scheme.
The case is set to continue the battle between the Office of Government Commerce, which carries out the gateway reviews of major public sector projects, and the information commissioner about whether "the public interest" demands greater openness or an all-encompassing blanket of confidentiality over the reviews.
Earlier this month, the Information Tribunal upheld information commissioner Richard Thomas’s decision ordering the OGC to disclose its reviews of the ID card programme and the scheme’s “traffic light status” at the gateway review 1 stage, in line with requests made under the Freedom of Information Act.
The tribunal decision was expected to allow greater public scrutiny as the ID card project develops.
But the OGC has filed an appeal in the high court, arguing that disclosure would seriously undermine the gateway review process.
A spokesperson said: “OGC welcomes the Information Tribunal’s findings that OGC had correctly identified that the information requested fell within qualified exemptions from the duty to disclose automatically under the Freedom of Information Act.
“However, it does not agree with the tribunal’s findings on where the public interest lies in relation to what information should be disclosed and what it is appropriate to withhold.”
The gateway review process had helped save more than £2.5bn on major public sector projects, the spokesperson said, adding: “In the government’s view, disclosure would seriously undermine the effectiveness of the gateway process, as confidentiality is essential to the whole process.”
It was “not in the public interest to put that effectiveness at risk” through the disclosure of the two documents on the ID card reviews requested in the Freedom of Information Act case, he said.
A spokesperson for the Information Commissioners’ Office hit back at OGC, saying public interest had been at the heart of Richard Thomas’s original ruling on the two items. “The information commissioner accepted that in both cases the public authority had applied the exemption on the formulation of government policy correctly, but found that, in these cases, the public interest in disclosing the information was greater than the arguments put forward for keeping the information secret,” she said.
“In reaching his decision, the information commissioner was aware of the importance the government attaches to the gateway review process and the balance between public accountability and transparency, and maintaining public confidence in the robustness and effectiveness of the gateway review process.”
Bit in these cases, the information commissioner “was not persuaded that the gateway review process would be damaged by the disclosure of this information”.
Instead, he concluded that disclosure of information on the reviews was “likely to enhance public debate of issues such as the programme’s feasibility and how it is managed”, the spokesperson said.
In its verdict upholding Thomas’s ruling, the tribunal said the OGC’s call for a “safe space” to protect information in the early stages of policy formulation could not be justified, because at the time of the requests for information the ID cards bill was being debated in parliament.
The OGC’s claim that disclosure – or even the possibility of disclosure - would have “grave consequences” was overstated, the tribunal ruled.
The ICO spokesperson said the organisation would defend the commissioner’s original decision in the high court.