Information tsar rules Aston Martin financial support must be made public

Details of the financial support offered to sports car manufacturer Aston Martin by the Welsh Government to locate its new factory in Wales must be published, the information commissioner has ruled.

Elizabeth Denham found that the Welsh Government had withheld information after a request under the Freedom of Information Act for details of financial support it had given to the car manufacturer.

The company is currently fitting out the former MoD base at St Athan in the Vale of Glamorgan ready for production of its new crossover vehicle.

Prior to the Warwickshire firm committing to the new plant to Wales it had undertaken a review of potential sites elsewhere in the country, with Minworth thought to be one site under consideration.

When the person making the request failed to get the desired response from the Welsh Government, they report the matter to the commissioner.

They stated they had requested information under the following terms: “…please accept this as a request to obtain the details of the financial package given by the Welsh Assembly to Aston Martin to locate a factory in Wales”.

The Welsh Government responded that “to date (July 7, 2016) Aston Martin has not received any grants or financial support”.

However, the complainant requested an internal review claiming that he was aware that a financial package had been agreed between the two parties, even if no funding had been given by that date.

He did acknowledge that he should have made this clear in his original request.

The Government had said the internal review upheld its original response that no financial package had been given to the manufacturer.

However, it also confirmed that a financial package had been agreed with Aston Martin to locate a factory in Wales but the information was considered exempt under section 43 of the FOIA.

The commissioner ruled that the Welsh Government had incorrectly withheld the requested information under sections 29 (1) (b) and 36 (2) (c) of the FOIA. Although she did say that the Government had met its obligations under another part of the Act (section 16).

She ruled that the Government must disclose the requested information to the complainant it had previously withheld under sections 29 (1) (b) and 36 (2) (c). It has until the end of May to comply.

In considering the information that falls within the scope of the request, the Welsh Government said it considered the term “financial support” to mean grants or other aid awarded to a company. This would not include transactions with companies on commercial terms such as property transactions. The Government said it considered the term “agreed” to mean support offered and accepted by a company.

The review of the complaint by the commissioner states: “The Welsh Government advised that, in this particular case, AML (Aston Martin Lagonda) made an announcement about bringing its project to Wales before any formal offers of support were made and agreed.”

The Government said grants to businesses were awarded on the basis of value for money relative to the benefit to the economy. The project with AML was considered to a very high quality scheme that would attract further investment to the region.

In his referral to the commissioner, the complainant said he could not understand the commercial sensitivity around revealing the financial support package offered or provided by the Welsh Government to any company.

He pointed out that the First Minister had publicly “claimed the credit for bringing Aston Martin to Wales saying that it was the Welsh Assembly’s professionalism and commitment that brought the deal to Wales”.

He said in his view, the Welsh Government should not enter into negotiations with companies, using tax payers’ money, to support any business unless the details of such expenditure were transparent.

He considered the disclosure of the requested information was necessary to allow taxpayers the opportunity to consider whether their money was being spent effectively.