FOI & Commercial Confidentiality
There appears to be a dearth of actual FOI expertise in these comments so allow me to enlighten you somewhat.
Tthe councils were probably right in that the information requested is the result of individually and confidentially negotiated contracts with suppliers and as such falls under the section 43 exemption (ooh controversial). However, there are a couple of tests that should have been carried out before the exemption to publish is actually applied and I think it might be helpful to have some idea as to what has actualyl occurred.
The first test is the prejudice test. Would release of this information cause harm to the commercial interests of any person or organisation?
Hmmm...well if it's known that one company charges one council one price and another council a different one then there's a good chance that the next time it comes round to negotiating the company is going to find it that much harder to get the higher price from the other council thereby damaging its commerical interests. Alternatively, the company might say 'Fair enough, we'll just charge the higher price.' So the council that paid less now finds itself paying more because of the release, again damage.
Also, the salt supplier is working in a competeitive marketplace. The next time these contracts come up for renewal they're going to be at a significant disadvantage to other salt suppliers due to the fact that they've had their pricing structure splashed all over the place and the others haven't.
Ok, so it seems reasonable to say that there would be harm to someone's commercial interests if this information was released. Test passed.
Next is the 'public interest test'. Basically this is a balancing act to see whether it is in the public interest to release the information anyway DESPITE the harm. Note: This is not the same as what the public is interested in. Now obviously I'm not privy to the arguments put forward but I reckon I can take a fair shot at some of the main ones.
Firstly, factors for maintaining the exemption. This is by no means an exhaustive list.
It is not in the public interest that a company's commercial interest is harmed without very good cause.
It is not in the public interest that a local authority is unable to obtain best value for a product because of a skewed marketplace and the inablility to hold confidential negotiations with suppliers. Possibly resulting in the reluctance of suppliers to compete for work with authorities that then go on to release that information. Less competitiveness = less chance of getting a good deal.
Second, factors against maintaining the exemption.
It is in the public interest that transparency is promoted by releasing information.
The release of this information would inform an ongoing debate on a relevant and significant subject in the public eye.
There is a public interest in the public knowing that there council is getting the absolute best value it can for products it purchases.
Given the signficant sums being spent it is in the public interest to know how it's money is being spent.
Anyway, that's just a few. So, what happens then is that your friendly neighbourhood FOI officer takes a look at all the factors and decides on balance which has the greater weight. Note: If they are equal then the exemption should not be maintained.
Obviously what has occured here is that the authorities have decided that it is not in the public interest for this info to be released in the manner that it has been asked for.
I'm inclined to agree with the councils but you can argue a public interest test like this until the cows slip over.
Now, if they'd asked for last years prices, that'd be a different story.
Anyway, I hope that's enlightened some of as to the mysterious art of the FOIA.