I have posted previously here and here regarding the ongoing battle with the Welsh Government to obtain information in relation to the handling of the Powys Fadog project.
The last FOI request I submitted was again very late, this time taking nearly 80 working days to receive a response, this followed yet another warning from the Information Commissioner.
As you can see from previous posts, substantial delays and problems in relation to FOI requests on this topic are nothing new, what is surprising about this latest one are the exemptions used by the Welsh Government to justify not handing over the information, this time 40(2)(personal data) and 36(2)(c)(effective conduct of public affairs). Also interesting is the fact that the wording of my original request has been slightly altered by the Welsh government along the process, something I’m currently taking up with the relevant department to ensure there has been no attempt to alter the meaning of the request.
The FOI request I submitted back in April reads as follows:
‘Any e mails, letters or paper work relating The People’s council of North Wales or the West Cheshire/north east Wales sub-regional strategy to the Powys Fadog /River Lodge project. I would like to request documents either to, from or on behalf of Karen Sinclair and Rhodri Morgan. I would like to request any information held from January 2009 to present’
The Welsh Government have confirmed that they do indeed hold information in relation to this request. In itself this is very concerning considering that the Powys Fadog project has nothing to do with the West Cheshire Plan or indeed the People’s Council who campaigned to stop it.
Why would former Assembly Member for Clwyd South Karen Sinclair be communicating with the First Minister of the country at the time Rhodri Morgan, linking these issues together?
Even more interesting, why would the Welsh Government use the following ‘exemption’ to justify not releasing this information?
"Section 36(2) ( c) – Effective conduct of public affairs
The exemption under Section 36(2)(c) is designed to prevent prejudice to the effective conduct of public affairs. The relationship between the First Minister and an elected representative forms the basis of democratic representation in Wales. That relationship is one based on the trust which an Assembly Member (AM) needs to maintain if he, or she, is to carry out their role effectively. There is a duty upon AMs, most clearly expressed in their Code of Conduct, to represent the interests of their constituents/constituencies and in doing so, there is an implied understanding that there has to be a right to privacy whilst representing their interest in the public arena.
Although the person corresponding with the First Minister, in this case, is no longer an AM, other elected representatives are likely to become aware of any disclosure. The knowledge that comments made to the First Minister could be disclosed in response to a FoI request has a real potential to impact upon the way in which AMs might engage with the Welsh Government whilst undertaking their core functions of working in the best interests of the people they represent. If this information was released into the public domain, we consider there to be a significant and real risk of elected representatives being less forthcoming in the manner in which they bring matters to the Welsh Government’s attention. In the light of this, it has been decided that disclosure of this information would be likely to prejudice the effective conduct of public affairs."
I’ve submitted quite a few FOI’s in my time but have not come across this exemption before. Surely if an AM communicates with the First Minister through official lines, this information should be open to FOI. Indeed, e mails between Karen Sinclair and Rhodri Morgan(whilst First Minster) in relation to Powys Fadog have previously been released, so what is so special about this topic I wonder to warrant the above?
I believe the Welsh Government will eventually have to release this information, even to the untrained eye the exemption applied above is clearly nonsense and designed solely to protect individual politicians. The fact that this information even exists points even more strongly to the discriminatory way the Powys Fadog project has been treated by senior Labour politicians and the Welsh Government.