The appeal concerned information about the possibility of the United Kingdom establishing an asylum processing centre on Ascension Island or St Helena. The proposals were the subject of extensive media coverage, and an FOI request was made to the FCDO. The FCDO declined to release the information and relied on the statutory exemptions under sections 27(1)(a) (international relations) and 35(1)(a) (formulation and development of government policy). The Appellant appealed the refusal and argued that the exemptions did not apply, and in any event the public interest balancing test was wrongly decided.
The appeal came before a 3 judge panel of the General Regulatory Chamber (Judges Oliver, Sivers and Yates), which found for the FCDO on all the issues. Regarding the section 27 exemption, it decided that relations with the UK’s overseas territories came within the definition of a “state” for the purposes of FOIA, and that the test of whether the potential disclosure would cause prejudice which was “real, actual or of substance” to international relations between the UK and another state was met. Despite the fact that “immigration policy is an issue of very significant public interest”, the public interest in disclosure was outweighed by the public interest in maintaining the exemption because disclosure would be likely to damage the UK’s relations with Ascension Island and St Helena, as well as its other overseas territories and some other states.
The GRC also accepted the FCDO’s case on section 35. It found that the information requested related to the formulation of government policy, and so the section was engaged. The public interest in maintaining the exemption clearly outweighed the public interest in disclosing the information, and accordingly the FCDO also succeeded on that separate issue.