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Select Committee on Public Administration Second Report


MEMORANDUM 5

Submitted by the Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions

Thank you for your letter of 9 June about Parliamentary Questions which have been "blocked" by the Table Office because of Ministers' refusal to answer.

I can confirm to your Committee that Ministers in my Department are committed to being as open as possible with Parliament and the public, refusing to provide information only when its disclosure would not be in the public interest as determined by statute and the Code of Practice on Access to Government Information ("the Code"). There are also occasions, of course, where the Department does not hold the information requested.

I enclose a table as requested. It lists the Parliamentary Questions attached to your letter and explains why the information was not provided in each case, noting relevant exemptions under the Code.

7 July 2000


9.12.98Departmental Staff
Comment:The question sought information about the Department's special advisers, including their level of security clearance. This information was withheld under exemption of paragraph 8 of Part II of the Code of Practice on Access to Government Information.
  
16.12.98Northern Line
Comment:Publication of the amount of damages payable by ALSTHOM for late delivery of trains would breach the commercial confidentiality of ALSTHOM (paragraph 13 of Part II of the Code of Practice on Access to Government Information). This could potentially artificially influence the share prices of the company in the run up to the London Underground PPP. Publication in this instance, is ultimately a matter for ALSTHOM.
  
11.1.99London Underground
13.1.99
Comment:Providing an estimation of payments to the private sector under the London Underground PPP contracts, before the said contracts are signed, would clearly jeopardise the commercial position of both Government and London Transport, (paragraph 7a of Part II of the Code of Practice on Access to Government Information).
  
Disclosure of payments made to individual firms advising on the PPP would harm the competitive position of London Transport in negotiating future contracts (by publicly setting a benchmark for costing consultancy contracts) and the commercial confidentiality of the firms involved (paragraph 7a of Part II of the Code of Practice on Access to Government Information).
  
11.1.99Paddington Station
Comment:The question sought information about Paddington Station which was provided in the answer. Although the answer refers to the issue being a matter for Railtrack, a substantive response was provided.
  
14.1.99Air Traffic Services
Comment:The information requested was a report the Department commissioned which contained both strategic advice to Ministers and confidential and commercially sensitive information relating to NATS. The information was withheld under exemption of paragraph 13 of Part II of the Code of Practice on Access to Government Information.
  
19.1.99Bus Fuel Rebate Scheme
Comment:It has been the Department's long-standing practice to treat as commercially confidential information on the amount of fuel duty rebate paid to individual bus companies. In particular, it has been considered that this practice was appropriate because the information might be of use to a competitor of the company concerned. Accordingly, Ministers of both parties over the years have declined to give this information in answer to Parliamentary Questions. The Department's practice in this regard is consistent with paragraph 13 of Part II of the Code of Practice on Access to Government Information which exempts from the Code's requirements information the unwarranted disclosure of which would harm the competitive position of a third party.
  
3.2.99Departmental Legislation
Comment:As the answer explained, there is a long-standing convention that legislative proposals for each year are not announced before the Queen's Speech at the start of the relevant Session.
  
1.2.99Waste Recycling
Comment:The information requested comes from the Municipal Waste Survey which we run. For the first year of the survey 1995/6 (but not in subsequent years), local authorities were given an assurance that their data would be treated in confidence ie individual authorities would not be identified in the published analysis. This was done because of serious concerns about the likely response rate. The information was therefore withheld under paragraph 11 of Part II of the Code of Practice on Access to Government information. We have subsequently made available information on waste at individual local authority level and so this should not be an issue in the future.
  
3.2.99Pipework Materials
Comment:As the answer explained, DETR does not collect information which relates to water companies' operational decisions.
  
8.2.99Ministerial Engagements
Comment:It is not normal practice of Governments to give details of Ministers' forthcoming engagements, primarily due to security considerations and the uncertainty of their diaries.
  
15.2.99Legal Services
Comment:"Round Robin" question tabled to all Departments. Model reply for all answers provided by the Attorney General's Chambers.
  
15.3.99Legal Advice (Land-access)
Comment:The question asked the Department to publish its legal advice in respect of a Land access issue. Information withheld under exemption of paragraphs 2 and 4 of Part II of the Code of Practice on Access to Government Information.
  
16.2.99London Underground (Consultants' Fees)
Comment:Disclosure of an estimate for the total cost of consultancy advice for the PPP would harm the competitive position of London Transport (paragraph 7a of Part II of the Code of Practice on Access to Government Information). Given that an aggregate cost for consultancy advice is published periodically, this would convey the impression of a diminishing 'pot' of funding for this purpose. This may adversely influence London Transport's future negotiations for consultancy advice for the PPP.
  
26.2.99Foleshill Gasworks
Comment:The question sought the reasons for not calling in a specific planning application. As explained in the answer, it is not the Department's practice to give reasons and the Courts have endorsed this view. Information withheld under exemption of paragraphs 4 and 14 of Part II of the Code of Practice on Access to Government Information.
  
1.3.99Private Meetings (Genetic Modification)
Comment:Information withheld under exemption of paragraph 2 of Part II of the Code of Practice on Access to Government Information.
  
1.3.99Franchise bids considered (OPRAF)
Comment:Information withheld under exemption of paragraph 13 of Part II of the Code of Practice on Access to Government Information.
  
29.3.99Environmental Council documents
Comment:As explained in the answer, the text in the PQ was a Council working document and as such is subject to the confidentiality of Council proceedings. The rules on the release of Council Documents are contained in Council Decision 93/731/EC.
  
12.3.99Bids for Land (Warcop to Appleby Line)
Comment:As indicated in the answer, the reason for refusing to answer the question was on grounds of commercial confidentiality. To release information about competitive bids for British Railways Board land could be determined to BRB's efforts to obtain value for taxpayer's money. Armed with information of other bids, a bidder could attempt to re-negotiate his own bid. Alternatively, a bidder could use the information to influence his bid for another similar site, again to the disadvantage of BRB. Release of this information could also prejudice the legitimate confidences of purchasers. Information withheld under exemption of paragraph 13 of Part II of the Code of Practice on Access to Government Information.
  
22.3.99GLA Building
Comment:The question asked, for each site for which outlines proposals for a GLA building were proposed, the grounds on which they were deemed inappropriate for final selection. The answer stated that such information was commercially confidential. It was therefore withheld under exemption of paragraphs 7, 13 and 14 of Part II of the Code of Practice on Access to Government Information.
  
23.6.99British Railways Board (Land Sales)
CommentThe response provided part of the information requested - by listing the location of certain sites and the date of sale. The price obtained for each sale was not provided, on grounds of commercial confidentiality for the same reasons outlined above. Information withheld under exemption of paragraph 13 of Part II of the Code of Practice on Access to Government Information.
  
27.7.99Land Valuations
Comment:Information withheld under exemption of paragraph 7 of Part II of the Code of Practice on Access to Government Information.
  
16.3.99Transport Security
Comment:Identifying publicly specific areas where there are problems with security could be of value to terrorists or others, who might seek to exploit any weaknesses cited. Information withheld under exemption of paragraph 1 of Part II of the Code of Practice on Access to Government Information.
  
29.3.99Jubilee Line
Comment:Details of the cost review are held to be commercially confidential by London Transport as publication would jeopardise its commercial position in the market place as a whole, with particular emphasis toward settlements yet to be negotiated on JLE contracts. This information is not provided to DETR by London Transport, as the department receives periodic comments via an agent. Paragraph 7a of Part II of the Code of Practice on Access to Government Information applies.
  
13.5.99Audit Commission
Comment:District auditors once appointed by the Audit Commission exercise their powers independently in accordance with the appropriate professional guidance and within the provisions contained in the Code of Audit Practice, which is approved by both Houses of Parliament. Neither the Secretary of State nor the Audit Commission can interfere in the work of an auditor and their decisions can only be re-opened by the Courts.
  
There was no intention in preparing the answers to block further questions, all we were seeking to do was report accurately the limit of the Secretary of State's powers in this area. The answers to questions (86064 & 84104) reported that the SoS had no powers to take any action in relation to the auditor's inquiry. Question 84117 asked what estimate the SoS had made about certain costs. No such estimate had been made and this was reported in the answer, which also pointed out, that audit fees were a matter for the Audit Commission.
  
24.5.99Ministerial Meetings
Comment:The question sought information on meetings that had been held with Ministers of other Departments in connection with the review of standard spending assessments. Information withheld under exemption 2 of Part II of the Code of Practice on Access to Government Information.
  
30.6.99Policy Advice
Comment:Question 86257 requested the release of information (advice to Ministers) concerning the closure of a Driving Test Centre. Information withheld under exemption of paragraph 2 of Part II of the Code of Practice on Access to Government Information.
  
16.7.99Policy Advice
Comment:Question 91049 sought information on meetings between Ministers and officials on a Stansted Airport issue. Information withheld under exemption of paragraph 2 of Part II of the Code of Practice on Access to Government Information.
  
27.7.99Public Appointments
Comment:Information withheld under exemption of paragraph 8(b) of Part II of the Code of Practice on Access to Government Information.
  
11.11.99National Air Traffic Services
Comment:The information requested was given to us in confidence as part of our consultation exercise on the PPP for NATS. The information was therefore withheld under exemption of paragraph 14 of Part II of the Code of Practice on Access to Government Information.



 
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