Request for advice on electoral finance, after the introduction of the Electoral Finance Bill
Introduction of Bill constituted discrete end-point in the policy development process—disclosure would not prejudice ability of Ministers to consider advice eventually tendered by officials—s 9(2)(f)(iv) does not apply
After the introduction of the Electoral Finance Bill (the Bill), requesters sought information about the policy development, and complained to the Ombudsman when some information was withheld under section 9(2)(f)(iv).
The Minister of Justice explained that, despite the Bill’s introduction, some of the advice had not been the subject of final decisions. In particular, an independent review of a range of electoral finance issues was to be conducted by an expert panel, with the assistance of a ‘Citizens’ Forum’. The issues would be considered further by the Government on receipt of the expert panel’s report.
The Minister argued that releasing the previous advice on these issues would be likely to hinder the future decision making process, by causing undue focus on matters already considered by the Government, when the intention was that the review be completely objective and unfettered by any previously considered or adopted proposals.
The Chief Ombudsman did not accept that section 9(2)(f)(iv) applied in this context. The introduction of the Bill constituted the end of a discrete phase or break-point in the policy development process. The policy process was not complete, as the Government would have more issues to consider once the independent review was finished. However, the Chief Ombudsman did not consider that release of the information would prejudice the future ability of Ministers to consider the issues afresh, in light of the expert panel’s report. The fact that the Government had an open mind on the issues to be considered was reflected in the fact that a decision had been made to refer them to an independent review and the terms of that review. While some members of the public may have been sceptical about the independence of the review, the proper approach was to provide a contextual statement to address any misunderstanding that may have arisen. The Minister accepted the Chief Ombudsman’s provisional opinion and released the advice.
This case note is published under the authority of the Ombudsmen Rules 1989. It sets out an Ombudsman’s view on the facts of a particular case. It should not be taken as establishing any legal precedent that would bind an Ombudsman in future.