The UK’s Department for International Development (DFID) has appealed the decision of Information Commissioner, who ordered it to disclose to UK Lawyers for Israel (UKLFI) audits of the funds provided by the UK and other countries and transferred to the Palestinian Authority (PA) via the World Bank.
DFID was ordered to disclose the documents within 35 days of the date of the decision on 28 July 2019, but has now filed a Notice of Appeal. It has not yet submitted its grounds of appeal, but has been granted an extension until 24 September 2019 to do so.
DFID stated in its appeal notice that it wants the Tribunal to overturn the Information Commissioner’s findings that the Palestinian Authority is not a State as defined in section 27(5) of the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) and that the public interest test favoured disclosure.
There will now be a one or two day hearing of the appeal next year, possibly as late as August 2020. The documents will only be disclosed if the Information Commissioner, and UKLFI, who have been added as a party, are successful in opposing the appeal.
The Palestinian Authority is not a State
DFID argued that the audit reports and terms of engagement of the auditors were exempt from disclosure on the ground that they would prejudice relations between the UK and another State and/or would disclose confidential information obtained from another State, the other State being the PA.
Section 27(5) of the FOIA says that references to a State other than the UK include references to any territory outside the UK. DFID argued that this includes any territory, even if it is not a State or part of a State. However, the Commissioner held, overruling earlier guidance, that this means territory of a State outside the UK. DFID wish to challenge this ruling.
DFID also claim that disclosure of the audit reports and terms of engagement of the auditors would be likely to prejudice the interests of the UK abroad and that this outweighs the public interest in disclosure.
UKLFI argued that the public interest in disclosure of the documents was extremely strong in this case since false information provided by DFID appears to have facilitated the continuation of a policy under which large sums of British public money have been used to reward and encourage murder.
The Commissioner said that the fact that concerns about the auditing of the account had been raised in Parliament was a significant factor in her decision, and that the severity of the allegations increased the public interest in the disclosure of information.
The Commissioner concluded on balance that the public interest in disclosure outweighed the public interest in not disclosing the information to avoid prejudicing the interests of the UK abroad. Accordingly, she ordered disclosure. DFID wish to appeal this ruling.
Jonathan Turner, Chief Executive of UKLFI, said: “The memorandum of understanding between DFID and the PA committed the PA to public accountability, so the PA can hardly complain about these audit reports being made available to the public. DFID’s continued refusal to disclose them seems to be more about preventing public accountability of DFID at home than about protecting the interests of the UK abroad.”