Lobbying and public affairs groups have been given a wake-up call. From now on, they must be prepared for records of their dealings with the Government to be released to the public under freedom of information laws.
After a three-year battle, the Information Tribunal last week ordered the Government to give Friends of the Earth previously secret records of lobbying meetings between the Confederation of British Industry (CBI) and the then Department of Trade and Industry (DTI), now the Department for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform (BERR) (PRWeek, 9 May).
The records include top-level meetings between the secretary of state and Digby Jones, then director general of the CBI and now minister in the department that was fighting to keep the documents secret.
BERR and the CBI had both claimed that records of their lobbying meetings had to be kept confidential, otherwise the meetings might not happen and policy making would be damaged because the Government would be deprived of important information.
During the hearing, John Cridland, deputy director general of the CBI, went as far as to say: 'I hope we aren't going to reach the point where people need to meet by the lake in St James' Park with a rolled-up copy of the Financial Times under their arm and wearing dark glasses, because that wouldn't be a satisfactory replacement for frank, involved discussions.'
But alongside the CBI's arguments, the In formation Tribunal also heard very different evidence from other business lobbyists. They said that since the Freedom of Information Act was passed in 2000, they have approached their lobbying of the Government under the assumption that records of the meetings could be made public.
The Information Tribunal found that Friends of the Earth's case was 'more in keeping with the changed climate' resulting from the coming into force of the Act and called the CBI's approach 'outmoded'.
So what are the lessons of this judgment? First, let's not forget that this disclosure is the result of laws passed by Parliament eight years ago. This judgment simply implements those laws. Many lobby groups have long understood the shift that the Act represented. Only the groups that had not, such as the CBI, now face a rude awakening.
Second, it is important to understand that every case will be decided on its facts and on the question of public interest in relation to the particular information.
Third, as this judgment clearly recognises, the price of privileged access is transparency.
Phil Michaels is head of legal at Friends of the Earth.