Tuesday, April 1, 2014

BoE Tells RBA: Don't Release Gold Bar Details (FOI)

Two months ago I wrote a Freedom of Information (FOI) request to the Reserve Bank of Australia (RBA). Here is the crux of my email:
This is a request under the Freedom of Information Act.
I request that a copy of the following documents [or documents containing the following information] be provided to me: An inventory (bar) list forming the 80 tonnes official Gold reserves (stored with the Bank of England), including details which identify the individual bars by refiner, weight, finesse, serial number and any other identification recorded for audit purposes.

In order to help determine my status to assess fees, you should know that I am a representative of online media and this request is made as part of news gathering and not for a commercial use.

While Gold holdings do fall under the operations of the bank, the position held has remained unchanged and published for well over a decade and I see no risk in providing details of the bars which underpin this position.
The Reserve Bank is exempt from the FOI Act in relation to documents in respect of its banking operations (including individual open market operations and foreign exchange dealings) and in respect of exchange control matters.
I assumed that Gold reserves sit within this exempt area given that it is detailed in the 'Operations in Financial Markets (Reserves Management)' section of the annual reports. However, given that their Gold holdings are public knowledge, as is the RBA's activity in the Gold leasing market, I could think of no logical reason that providing the information would be damaging to the institution or their operations.

The two (primary) responses I received are below.

February 28th (in aid of extending their deadline):
This email is intended to provide you with an update in relation to the processing of your request under the Freedom of Information Act 1982 (the Act).  It is also a formal notice as required under s27 (see below).

In terms of s27, (consultation – business documents) of the Act, the Reserve Bank of Australia is required to consult with a ‘person, organisation or undertaking’ in the event that (they) might reasonably wish to make an exemption contention that the document is exempt from release in terms of s47 (business).  Consistent with the terms of the consultation process provided for in s27, we have determined in writing that consultation is required, and therefore an extension of processing time (by a further 30 days) to enable consultation to take place (s15(6)) is provided for by the Act.
April 1st (today, April Fools?!):
Further to earlier correspondence regarding your FOI request, I wish to advise you that we have received a response from the Bank of England regarding information about the Reserve Bank of Australia’s gold inventory (as held by the Bank of England).

The Bank of England has advised us that it regards the information about the gold holdings that has been exchanged with the RBA to have been exchanged in confidence.  This is consistent with the Reserve Bank of Australia’s own view about our interactions with the Bank of England in relation to the gold holdings (i.e. we also regard our exchanges with the Bank of England to have been made in confidence).

Accordingly, I have decided to deny access to the information sought in terms of section 33(b) of the Freedom of Information Act 1982 (the Act) ‘as information or matter communicated in confidence by or on behalf of a foreign government [or] an authority of a foreign government … to an authority of the Commonwealth’ (being the Reserve Bank of Australia). Further, I have decided to deny access to the information sought also in terms of section 33(a)(iii) of the Act, which pertains to documents affecting international relations of the Commonwealth. I have decided that disclosure of the information sought by you would, or could reasonably be expected to, cause damage to the international relations of the Commonwealth.
So basically the situation is as follows:

99.9% of Australia's Gold reserves, 80 tonnes, are stored with the Bank of England (BoE), news of which first came to light on this site in December 2012.

Petitions to repatriate Australian Gold have garnered public support, but not to a critical level needed for it to become a political issue (you can still sign it here).

Supposedly this Gold belongs to Australia (managed by the RBA), yet when a member of the public requests a list of the Gold bar details (of which revealing would pose no risk that I can think of), the RBA says that they are unable to. Why? Because the BoE (who are merely a custodian of the Gold) said that it needs to be kept a secret.

In the final email, along with the advice that they would withhold the information, I was provided a document which detailed some options should I choose to challenge the decision. Included (amongst various options) are requesting an internal review, review by Administrative Appeals Tribunal, Review by Federal Courts or complaining to the Ombudsman. If anyone has any experience with challenging an FOI decision or ideas on what grounds I could do so then I would welcome your thoughts in the comments below (in a timely fashion as I only have around a month for any challenge). Alternatively you are welcome to email me (address at top right of blog under social media buttons).

Any other opinions or comments on the outcome so far are welcome, as are any thoughts on risks or reasoning the Bank of England may have for keeping the Gold bar details a secret.

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