Requests for information regarding ministerial conflicts of interest
In late 2009 and early 2010 a number of requesters sought a range of information regarding ministerial conflicts of interest. The Cabinet Office, within the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet (DPMC), refused the requests in reliance on sections 9(2)(a), 9(2)(ba)(i), 9(2)(f), 9(2)(g)(i), and 18(f) of the Official Information Act (OIA).
Following my investigation and review, I formed the opinion that the “good government” provisions of the OIA (sections 9(2)(f) and (g)) provided good reason to withhold Ministers’ declarations of interest at Cabinet and Cabinet Committees, and correspondence between Ministers and the Cabinet Office about actual or possible conflicts of interest.
However, there was no good reason to withhold some information concerning actions taken to manage identified conflicts of interest, namely key information about the non-receipt of papers by Ministers and transfers of responsibility. There is a strong public interest in transparency of those actions so that the public can be reassured that the integrity of the decision making process of executive government is being protected, and Ministers and the Cabinet Office are identifying and managing conflicts of interest appropriately. The Cabinet Office accepted this view and released to Messrs Harbrow and Burkhart a summary of actions taken to manage Ministers’ interests between June 2009 and July 2010. The Cabinet Office also accepted my suggestion that information of this nature could usefully be released proactively on a regular basis. It advised that the first proactive release will cover actions taken in a twelve-month period between 1 October 2012 and 30 September 2013. The proactive releases will occur every twelve months thereafter. My Office will assist with this process by reviewing information prepared for a proactive release as a means of assurance that the information released is a fair summary of the fuller details recorded by the Cabinet Office.
I noted that should the Cabinet Office receive requests for fuller details than those disclosed in the summary information, it should consider each request on a case by case basis. Decisions by it to refuse such requests, would, of course, be reviewable under the OIA.
In addition, I formed the view that there was no reason to refuse the request for statistics pertaining to actions taken to manage conflicts of interest. I considered that the exercise of compiling the statistics amounted to “collation” rather than “creation” of new information. I also considered that concerns about the completeness of the information did not provide a reason for withholding it, and such concerns may be addressed by disclosure of an accompanying contextual statement explaining the limitations of the information.