Health bodies must pro-actively disclose details of meetings with pharmaceutical companies, says ICO

Out-Law News | 18 Sep 2014 | 6:00 am | 2 min. read

Public health bodies in England, Wales and Northern Ireland must pro-actively disclose details of the meetings they hold with pharmaceutical companies and other medical suppliers, the Information Commissioner's Office (ICO) has said.

The information must be published in line with the health bodies' obligations under freedom of information (FOI) laws, even if disclosure has not been specifically requested, the ICO said.

The disclosure requirements were set out in just some of a raft of new guidance documents published by the ICO that set out what types of information public bodies are expected to publish depending on what sector they are operating in. Different guidance is available for central government departments to that which applies to local government authorities, health or education sector bodies, for example.

In its guidance for health bodies specifically, the ICO said: "We would expect as a minimum that [details of meetings with pharmaceutical companies and other medical suppliers for disclosure] should include the name of the company, the date and, if appropriate, the name of the member(s) of staff attending (if recorded), together with a general indication of the category of meeting, for example marketing or promotion. The names of staff attending should include any senior managers and any medically qualified staff if this information is recorded."

Under FOI laws all public authorities must "adopt and maintain" a scheme of publishing information that must be approved by the ICO. The scheme has to "specify classes of information which the public authority publishes or intends to publish, specify the manner in which information of each class is, or is intended to be, published, and specify whether the material is, or is intended to be, available to the public free of charge or on payment".

The ICO said that following its guidance could help public bodies cut the number of FOI requests they have to handle.

"While the ICO has learnt over the years that the relationship between publication schemes and volume of requests is complex, we still believe a well-managed, dynamic, publication scheme can assist in reducing the volume of requests received on certain topics or issues," Steve Wood, head of policy delivery at the ICO, said in a blog published by the watchdog.

According to the new guidance, local government bodies will now have to publish details of all their spending over £500. More information about "procurement processes and contracts" and senior managers' salaries will also have to be made available for access by the public, the ICO said.

Wood said the ICO plans to assess public bodies to check they are complying with their publication duties under the FOI Act (FOIA). He said public bodies should review their publication schemes in light of the new guidance that has been issued.

"It is not enough for public authorities simply to adopt the [ICO's] model publication scheme and implement it by using a definition document/template guide," Wood said. "Organisations must also maintain their publication schemes, updating them as necessary to ensure that relevant information is routinely made available to the public."

"We expect organisations to keep their publication schemes up to date in order to comply with their legal duties under FOIA, and we will consider monitoring individual authorities’ publication schemes in 2015 and 2016 to see how effectively they have been doing this," he said.