Evening Standard in FOI appeal to info chief Richard Thomas

The Evening Standard is leading an attack on government attempts to keep secret information which it says relates to the development and formulation of policy at a hearing before the Information Tribunal.

The hearing, which started yesterday and is expected to conclude today, is over the Government's continued refusal to supply material sought by the newspaper's education correspondent, Dominic Hayes.

In January 2005, when the Freedom of Information Act first came fully into effect, Mr Hayes asked the Department for Education and Skills for the minutes of high-level meetings within the department about the crisis in schools funding which arose in 2003.

The department rejected the request, arguing that the information concerned the formulation and development of policy and was therefore exempt under section 35 of the Act.

Mr Hayes appealed to Information Commissioner Richard Thomas, who oversees the operation of the FoI Act. The Information Commissioner decided that although the material sought related to policy, the public interest in disclosure outweighed the public interest in withholding it.

The hearing before the Information Tribunal is an appeal by the government against the Information Commissioner's decision.

The case is thought to be one of the first by a government department against a decision by the Information Commissioner, and if the first time the Information Tribunal has had to consider the scope of the section 35 exemption.

The Evening Standard, which has been joined as a party to the hearing, is being represented by Antony White QC, of Matrix Chambers.

It is believed that witnesses being called by the government include Lord Turnbull, the former Cabinet Secretary.

Solicitor Keith Mathieson, a partner at Reynolds Porter Chamberlain, who is acting for the Evening Standard, told The Lawyer magazine this week: "One of the most important FoI exemptions that the Government relies on is section 35. The Government regards policy discussions as private.

"The Government wants the widest possible interpretation of the exemption, and we are arguing for a narrow interpretation. We think the public interest lies in knowing about these things."

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