The University of Sussex is facing legal proceedings over an ongoing Freedom of Information dispute with a recent University graduate over details of their contract with catering company Chartwells.
Former Politics and International Relations student Gabriel Webber began the “frustrating process” 16 months ago while he was still a student, when he submitted an FOI request asking the University to make public their contract with the outsourced catering provider.
But the University repeatedly withheld certain elements of the contract from publication under different sections of the FOI Act, even though the Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) has ruled they do not apply and cannot be used.
The University appealed, late but with no repercussions, against the ICO’s instruction to disclose all information and the case will be taken to a Tribunal next year.
Webber said: “At every stage of this ridiculously drawn-out affair, the University has done its best to withhold as much information as possible in the hope they wouldn’t be challenged so they would get away with it.
“One gets a strong sense that the University has something to hide.”
Originally, the University refused to disclose the entire contract under section 22 of the FOI Act. It stated that “procurement processes” were still underway and, once completed, it intended to formulate a publication plan for the documents.
But Webber immediately requested an internal view, rejecting the application of this section due the University not meeting the requirement of having a confirmed date and intention for publication.
The University responded a month later informing Webber that, having carried out an internal review, it upheld the decision to apply section 22. It also stated the relevant information would be published towards the end of January 2014.
Webber said: “The original refusal under section 22 was completely spurious and against clear, unambiguous ICO guidance which says that you can only use section 22 where you are sure that the entire document will be published in due course.
“Had I not had the energy to follow it through things would have stopped there.”
Webber then complained to the ICO about the way his request had been dealt with and raised his concerns about the application of Section 22.
During the ICO’s investigation, the University changed its stance and published a redacted version of the contract on its website in February this year.
The University informed both Webber and the ICO that it withheld certain elements of the contract under Sections 41 and 43 of the Act due to being commercially sensitive and containing information on one of the ways “Chartwells is able to offer something different to its rivals.”
The University also argued the disclosure of this information would prejudice its own commercial interests and impact on the way other service providers interact with it in the future.
But the ICO stated: “The Commissioner cannot see from a review of the information itself or from the submissions supplied exactly how such information could be commercially sensitive or used by one of Chartwells’ competitors.”
It also stated it is the Commissioner’s view that transparency and accountability where contracts have already been signed, as is the case with the University and Chartwells, would not deter future engagement with them.
The Commissioner also supported Webber’s view that Section 22 was incorrectly applied, ruling: “It is quite clear the University had no intention of making the entire contract available to the public.”
When contacted by The Badger, a spokesperson for the University said: “The commercial aspects of this contract are the subject of an ongoing Freedom of Information request and it would not be appropriate for us to comment while this request is still under consideration.”
Webber added: “It’s frustrating the extent to which they are going to avoid transparency about releasing data which will answer one simple question: was the Chartwells outsourcing a good idea?
“They seem surprisingly reluctant to prove this and, ironically, are even willing to spend loads of money to avoid having to do so.
“I can only imagine one reason for the University to try to avoid letting the public find out.”
All three parties involved in the dispute, the ICO, the University and Webber, are currently preparing and deciding documents expected to go in front of a Tribunal panel in January 2015.
Chartwells took over from in-house catering on the campus last year and became the centre of controversy due to the company’s conglomerate, Compass’ associations with corruption in defrauding United Nations peacekeeping operations.
Webber also told The Badger that the contract signed with the University certified that the company had not been subject to a corruption or fraud investigation for the last six years, while Chartwells settled its corruption lawsuits in October 2006.
He said: “One wonders how the figure of ‘no corruption for the last six years’ was chosen.”