In 2005, consultants Environmental Resources Management prepared a report and environmental assessment for the Regional Assembly of the North East on the implications of the UK sustainable development strategy for the region’s own strategy.
ERM received a request for all documents relating to the assessment, but the company decided it was not a public authority and therefore not covered by the regulations.
But the ICO recently ruled the regulations covered ERM because it was "under the control of a public body and… exercising functions of a public nature relating to the environment."
It also ruled that because ERM was carrying out the assessment for the regional strategy as part of a strategic environmental assessment (SEA), it was performing the functions of a public authority.
The SEA regulations require authorities to "carry out, or secure the carrying out" of an environmental assessment and report on public plans like the regional strategy. In letting the contract, said the commissioner, the assembly had delegated these functions to ERM.
The ICO said it opted for a "broad interpretation" of "public authorities" to stop public bodies from contracting out some functions to avoid being covered by the regulations.
By the time the ruling was issued, ERM had provided the complainant with the information requested.
The ruling has implications for any private organisation providing services to public authorities. It is the first from the ICO clarifying who the regulations cover.
The case of consultants working on SEAs is particularly clear cut because authorities have the responsibility to carry out the assessments. But any private organisation that carries out work that would otherwise be done by public authorities, or is operating under their control, could be covered by the regulations.