Tribunal backs disclosure of secret Ryanair deal

Derry City Council must reveal the details of its deal with Ryanair on landing fees, the UK's Information Tribunal has ruled. The Council must provide the information by the middle of next week.

The decision tips the balance in favour of the revelation of information held by local authorities, even if it is deemed commercially sensitive. The Council had argued that releasing the information would be economically detrimental to the area. The decision can be appealed.

A journalist had requested information from the Council about the deal struck between it and Ryanair over the airline's use of Derry City Airport. The Council blacked out financial specifics contained in a fax from Ryanair outlining the deal, and the journalist complained to the Information Commissioner.

The request was made by Brian Hutton of the Belfast Telegraph under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), and was initially refused altogether by the Council. It later provided a copy of a fax outlining the agreement but with specific details blacked out.

The Council argued that it was permitted to keep the information private under exemptions contained in sections 29 and 42 of the Act, which allow a local authority to deny information if it would prejudice the economic interest of any part of the UK, or the commercial interest of the authority itself. It also relied on an exemption relating to breach of confidence.

Ryanair has previously been involved in disputes about its deals with airports. The European Commission had found that the local authority behind Charleroi airport had provided some un-notified assistance to Ryanair which broke EU rules.

The Information Commissioner backed Hutton and ordered that the information be released, and this decision was appealed to the Information Tribunal. It in turn found that the Council, which owns Derry Airport, had been warned about the possibility of similar action.

"There was evidence that in about 2000 the local government auditor raised with the Council his concerns that the terms of the Ryanair Agreement might have an impact on EU Competition Law and State aid," said Tribunal Deputy Chairman Chris Ryan in his ruling. The Council took legal advice on that point at the time and continued the arrangement.

Ryan said that many of the specifics of the case could not be disclosed until either the conclusion of an appeal or the date for the lodging of an appeal has passed. He said there was an important principle at stake, though.

"We are not concerned with the detail of the debate which may result if we order disclosure of the Ryanair Financial Information," said Ryan. "The only legitimate concern is the balance to be struck between the public interest in disclosing information that may illuminate that debate, on the one hand, and the public interest in maintaining the relevant exemption, on the other," he said.

Ryan upheld the original decision of the Information Commissioner. Although there would be prejudice to the commercial interests of the Council, which was already running the airport at a loss for the more general economic benefit of the area, Ryan said that this had to be weighed against the public interest in having the information made public.

The public interest of disclosure outweighed the public interest of the economic interest of the area, he said. Against the background of the Charleroi decision, he said, there was a clear public interest in the details of the deal, though his detailed argument was submitted in confidence in order to preserve the confidentiality of the deal until the appeal date has passed.