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It seems that after more than 7 years of being law, some public authorities still fail to fully understand their obligations under the Freedom of Information Act 2000 (FOIA). The Act, which came into force in January 2005, provides access to information held by a large number of public authorities.
Liverpool Community College appears to fail to understand its obligations under the Act. This is a conclusion that can be arrived at after seeing some responses to requests made through the “What Do They Know” (WDTK) website. The college’s dedicated page on the WDTK website shows a clear and consistent failure to comply with the FOIA.
Each request submitted through the website has not been responded to by the college other than to point them towards the College’s website on FOI or to state that a form must be completed and sent to the college. The college’s website also suggests that the only way in which a request for information can be made to the College is to send a form to the College. This is in clear breach of the FOIA.
The FOIA only sets three requirements for a FOI request to be valid. Those requirements are set out in Section 8 of the FOIA, which reads:
(1)In this Act any reference to a “request for information” is a reference to such a request which—
(a)is in writing,
(b)states the name of the applicant and an address for correspondence, and
(c)describes the information requested.
(2)For the purposes of subsection (1)(a), a request is to be treated as made in writing where the text of the request—
(a)is transmitted by electronic means,
(b)is received in legible form, and
(c)is capable of being used for subsequent reference.
As can be seen the Act is quite clear; a request can be transmitted by electronic means. The WDTK website works by sending an E-mail to the authority from a randomly generated address which is linked directly to the request thread created by the user. It is, in short, a request being made by E-mail.
Once a public authority has received a valid request for information their obligation to respond in accordance with the Act begins. They might have a preference as to how requests are received, but if a request is made in accordance with the requirements in Section 8 of the FOIA then the authority is obliged to respond to the request.
The Information Commissioner’s Office summarised their position on both WDTK and E-mail as methods of making a request for information pursuant to the FOIA in this letter to Rother District Council.
Hopefully someone will draw the College’s attention to the fact that they are not acting in compliance with the FOIA. It is hard to believe that after 7 years of operation some public authorities still do not understand the most basic elements of the FOIA. It is essential that the college is able to identify a valid FOIA request. Requests could be found within correspondence sent to the college in pursuance of other matters (e.g. a complaint) and a failure to identify a request or to deal with a request obviously labelled as one that has not come in on the College’s request form is a blatant technical failure. There is certainly a training need at the College around the FOIA and hopefully that will be addressed once the College is aware of its mistakes.