The Information Tribunal recently considered a freedom of information request Plowden and FCO v IC (EA/2011/0225 and 0228) which sought disclosure of the record of a telephone conversation between Tony Blair and George Bush on 12 March 2003, 8 days before the start of the Iraq war. Mr Plowden wished to establish if, in the conversation, Mr Blair and Mr Bush agreed to say that the French had made it impossible to secure a second resolution.
In response to the request, the Foreign & Commonwealth Office (FCO) refused to disclose the information, claiming exemptions under ss.27(1) and (2) (prejudice of international relations) and s.35(1)(b) (ministerial communications). Mr Plowden complained to the Information Commissioner (ICO).
The ICO distinguished between what it termed the “Bush information” and the “Blair information”. Mr Plowden appealed against the ICO’s decision that the Bush information should be withheld, and the FCO appealed against the ICO’s decision to disclose the rest of the information.
The Tribunal found that the ICO had taken too narrow a view of “confidential information obtained from a State other than the UK”. It held that the “Bush information”, as well as notes of whether Mr Blair agreed with President Bush, were exempted. It also upheld the exemption for the information that Bush and Blair discussed and agreed together without identifying who originated the subject of the discussion. However, the “Blair information” was ordered to be released/
The exceptional nature of the case meant the Tribunal took a sentence-by sentence approach to considering whether the exemptions applied in respect of the information in question. This emphasises the importance of considering the fine detail of information falling within the scope of a request at a micro level, particularly where there are public interest factors which weigh heavily in favour of disclosure.