The Secret Small Business Economic Forum

Some time ago I posted an item about the Small Business Economic Forum.  I had requested information under the Freedom of Information Act to find out who had attended and what had been discussed.  I managed to get a list of who had attended – most completely unrepresentative of the small business community – but I met a brick wall when it came to obtaining the minutes.

I have now received a 4-page reply from the Director of Enterprise at the Business Innovation & Skills Department explaining why the minutes cannot be released to me.

This is a government who have made it clear that they are committed to supporting the small business community yet here are some of the reasons given as to why the minutes of this meeting cannot be released:-

  • “….releasing this information would break that confidence and discourage companies from speaking to government in the future….” 
  • “…..disclosure of the information to the public would constitute an actionable breach of confidence….” 
  • “…. It believes would be likely to prejudice commercial interest….  Entrepreneurs and businesses speak freely at the forum about their business experience…” 
  • “…. my assessment that full disclosure of the minutes of the meeting would be likely to damage company’s commercial positions…..  I consider that the public interest in the disclosure is outweighed by the necessity to protect the commercial interest of 3rd parties and therefore the information should be withheld….” 

They did agree very kindly (!) to let me see the agenda of the meeting which by all accounts only lasted for an hour and a half.  Of this hour and a half, 10 minutes were allocated for welcome and introductions, (I believe there were more than 20 people present), 10 minutes were allowed for a short update on the comprehensive spending review, 5 minutes allowed for any other business and 10 minutes for information relating to the next meeting and future work programmes.

There was also a whole 10 minutes to cover the terms of reference for the forum.

The main section of the meeting covered 20 minutes for a finance green paper which was entitled “An update on the priorities identified and work on the government response”.  (whatever does that mean) and 25 minutes on a presentation of the BBA task force recommendations and discussion of member’s initial views? 

So this is the new level of transparency that we are able to expect.  An agenda that seems to cover nothing and written in ministerial code resulting in meeting minutes that are secret.