Friday, November 03, 2006

A Guide to the Freedom of Information Act

Everyday the University receives hundreds of requests for a wide range of information. If you receive a request for information that is straightforward, then you should continue to deal with it as normal. This guide is for dealing with requests which are more complex or time consuming or where you intend to refuse to give the information.

This is a general guide on the Freedom of Information (“FOI”) Act and is relevant to all members of staff who respond to requests for information.

What does the FOI Act do?

It gives individuals the right:
- To make a request for information;
- To be informed whether or not the information is held; and
- To be given the information as long as it’s not exempt (more on exemptions in the next part of this guide).

It is important to be able to identify a valid FOI request because all requests for information must be responded to promptly and by no later than 20 working days after receipt of the request.

What would happen if I don’t respond within 20 working days or I refuse to release information which the applicant is entitled to?

In both cases the applicant can make a complaint to the Information Commissioner. The Commissioner has a wide variety of powers under the FOI Act to ensure the University complies.

Under the Act it is a criminal offence for any employee to tamper with existing records after a request for information has been received.

Significantly this offence is covered by personal liability so if an employee is found to have deliberately tampered with such documents then it’s the individual and not the University who would face prosecution and a possible fine of up to £5,000.

How do I identify a valid FOI request?

A FOI request is valid if:

The request is in writing (this includes fax and emails);
It states the name of the applicant and provides an address for you to correspond with (e-mail is sufficient);
The information is adequately described to enable you to locate it.

If you need clarification to enable you to answer the query then you can telephone the applicant or contact them in writing but you should do so promptly. Under the FOI Act you must assist the applicant wherever possible.

Remember that the FOI Act applies to information, so a request for documents is not a valid request, as it is not a request for information. For example, a request asking for a copy of the Minutes of the Tea and Biscuits Committee would not have to be met.
However, you would have to inform the applicant and assist them in rephrasing their request. Something along the lines of ‘How many cups of tea do you serve’ would have to be answered.

Please note these important considerations:

Firstly, the reason behind the inquiry is irrelevant. It’s a red herring to get caught up on who the applicant is. Journalists, Market Researchers, Campaign Groups must all be dealt with in the same way as a Local Resident or member of the Public.

Secondly, there are no restrictions as to the nationality or place of residence of the applicant.

Finally, a request for information doesn’t need to mention the Act at all. As long as it’s a request for information, in writing with the applicant’s name and correspondence address then it’s a Freedom of Information request and 20 day timescales apply.

No comments: