ICO upholds FCA decision not to disclose list of countries posing a high money laundering risk

11 November 2015

The Information Commissioner's Office (ICO) has recently published a decision notice in which the ICO has upheld the FCA's decision to refuse to disclose certain information under the Freedom of Information Act 2000 (FOIA) relating to countries which the FCA deems to present a high money laundering risk.

In July 2014 the FCA had published on its website a list of countries the FCA deemed to present a high risk of money laundering.  However it withdrew this list, amidst speculation that it had been encouraged to do so under pressure from the government.  In May 2015, the complainant asked the FCA to disclose its most up-to-date list of countries posing a high money laundering risk.

In response to the request, the FCA confirmed that it maintained a list of high risk countries and it confirmed when the information had last been updated, but it withheld the requested list.  In declining to disclose the list the FCA relied upon section 27(1)(a) and (b) of FOIA; this is a prejudice-based exemption that is subject to a public interest test.

The complainant unsuccessfully asked the FCA to review this decision. He then complained to the ICO about the handling of his request. During the course of the Commissioner's investigation the FCA applied further sections of FOIA to the withheld information.

The FCA argued that disclosure of the withheld information would, or would be likely to, prejudice the UK's relations with some of the countries on the requested list. It argued that, over time, this would reduce the willingness of these countries to engage with the UK. In turn, this would have a negative impact on the effectiveness of the UK financial services regulatory regime. The FCA also commented that the fact the withheld information was "recent" strengthened the public interest argument.

The FCA further noted that there are a variety of sources of information about high-risk countries available publicly. However the FCA, unsurprisingly, did not endorse any of this publicly available information, so the complainant and the rest of the financial services sector remains in the dark as to which countries the FCA considers to be high risk.

The FCA provided the Commissioner with further arguments identifying the particular harm it considered may arise from disclosure of the withheld information. This information has not been made publicly available.

The Commissioner decided that the FCA had correctly applied section 27(1)(a) to the withheld information (in the light of this decision, the Commissioner did not need to consider the FCA's other arguments). The Commissioner accepted that there was a public interest in transparency not least because of the support this could give to tackling financial crime. Nonetheless, the Commissioner was satisfied that on balance the public interest was better served by not offending these hot-beds of money laundering, because there would be a real and significant risk of prejudice to the UK's international relations if some of the withheld information were to be disclosed.

The complainant has the right to appeal against the decision within 28 days.

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