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Tribunal orders DWP to release IT contract details

Disclosure in public interest

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The Information Tribunal has ordered a government department to publish most of the till-now withheld details of a major IT contract, after ruling that the public interest was served better by disclosure than secrecy.

The First Tier Tribunal has said (pdf) that most of the withheld material in a contract between the Department of Work and Pensions (DWP) and Atos Origin for the provision of the Government Gateway service should be made public. The financial model used by Atos in the contract and the exact location of its data centre can be kept secret, it said.

Peter Collingbourne made a request for details of the contract in December 2007, and some of the requested details were released. Other parts were refused, though, when the DWP argued that it did not have to release the details because doing so would damage its and Atos's commercial interests.

Section 43 of the Freedom of Information (FOI) Act allows organisations to refuse to release material if it is a trade secret of would damage anybody's commercial interests, and if the public interest would be better served by continuing confidentiality rather than publication.

The Information Commissioner backed Collingbourne's request and ordered the DWP to release the contract details, but the DWP appealed to the Tribunal.

Atos was the only bidder for the £47m Gateway contract after other interested companies pulled out. The contract was for a large IT system to handle information requests and transactions between government departments and the public.

DWP told the Tribunal that the public interest was served by keeping details secret because publication of the details would erode its ability to obtain value for money in future contracts, and could discourage companies from bidding for government work.

The information requested included details of caps on liability contained in the contract as well as details of the 'benchmarking' models used to demonstrate that Atos was charging DWP on a similar basis to other customers.

"The DWP does not want to disclose the [liability] caps because ... it would affect the actual amounts of liability cap that could be achieved for future procurements of shared services and would deter small and medium sized enterprises from bidding for public sector contracts," said the Tribunal ruling. "The reduction in the number of bidders would negatively impact on the commercial interests of the DWP."

The Tribunal ruled that section 43 of the FOI Act did apply to all the information requested.

"We find in relation to all the disputed information, except the Financial Model, that there 'would be likely to be prejudice' to the commercial interests of the DWP. We find that there is a causal relationship between the disputed information and future government procuring of IT services and that there is a real risk to the competitive environment particularly in relation to the future of the Gateway," said the ruling.

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