The cost and burden of FOI…again

The Chief Constable of Surrey Police has gone on the offensive against Freedom of Information on Twitter this evening (and the Assistant Chief Constable of Greater Manchester Police joined in).  It follows a predictable pattern where a public authority (and technically the Chief Constable is the public authority – schedule 1 to the FOIA provides that “A chief officer of police of a police force in England or Wales” is a public authority) complains about the cost of FOI and how it impacts upon the delivery of front line services.

It is a well trodden path which has, over the years, generated lots of discussion in information rights circles.  One of the frequent things to be picked up in these discussions is that, while public authorities are complaining about the cost and burden of FOI, they rarely mention any of the benefits.  Those benefits are around openness, transparency and accountability.

FOI, I can imagine, is probably a right pain in the backside to public authorities sometimes; however, just because it’s a royal pain in the backside doesn’t mean that it is of no value.  FOI is about allowing the citizen to set the agenda on the flow of information.  No longer is the flow of information dictated by what public authorities are prepared to release.  Now, if a member of the public wants to know something, they have the right to be given it if the public authority holds it and there is no good reason for not releasing it.

In times of shrinking budgets, FOI might be seen as an expensive luxury.  However, I would argue that in times of shrinking budgets FOI is all the more important.  As budgets shrink, public authorities have to take decisions about how they spend their ever shrinking budget.  That will often mean cuts to some services (or perhaps withdrawing services altogether).  It allows people who are directly affected by those decisions to go to the public authority and obtain the information that forms the basis of those decisions.  It can help them to understand why decisions have been taken and more importantly can better enable them to challenge decisions where they are perceived to be the wrong ones.

When Parliament drafted the FOIA, it didn’t do so without having any consideration as to the burden that this new regime would have on public authorities.  There are a number of provisions within the FOIA which help to control the burden of FOI.

First, there is section 12 of the Act which sets an appropriate limit on the costs of FOI requests.  A public authority is not obliged to comply with a request where the cost of compliance is estimated to excced the appropriate limit.  For a police force in England and Wales, the limit is £450 (indeed, it is £450 for all public authorities except Government departments or Scottish Public Authorities, where it is £600).  This does only covers certain activities and it is possible for requests to cost more than the appropriate limit in practice and not be capable of being refused under section 12.  This will be because the cost is incurred in an activity which cannot be taken into account in any cost calculations for the purposes of determining whether it exceeds the appropriate limit.

Sometimes, these requests will be the ones where the public interest is finely balanced and the authority is having difficulty establishing just where the public interest lies.  Should such requests be refused because of this?  I’d forcefully argue that they should not.  If it was possible to refuse these requests it would actively work against the public interest: the public might not get information which it would be in the public interest for them to have simply because it is going to take a bit of time for the public authority to work out just where the public interest lies.  However, sometimes the additional cost will be because there is a large volume of information to consider.  While, a request that throws up a large volume of information will often end up breaching the “appropriate limit”,  it is sometimes the case that there is a large volume of information held on a particular subject which is actually relatively quick and easy to locate and extract.  What takes the time then is the applying of exemptions and the conduct of the public interest test.  Section 12 isn’t an option in these requests, because the law doesn’t allow for it to apply.  However, this does bring us on to the next provision of the FOIA which is there to prevent the burden from being too great.

Before I look at that, I thought it would worthwhile pointing out that in terms of section 12 the law has provision within it to ensure that it cannot be avoided.  Simply breaking down a large request into a number of different requests will still likely engage the cost limit: public authorities can aggregate requests from the same individual received within a period of 60 consecutive working days which seek similar information.  So, asking for information on a particular subject over a 10 year period broken down into 5 requests each covering a 2 year period will be aggregated together.  All of the requests will be refused if the cost of complying with all of them is estimated to exceed the appropriate limit.  This provision goes further than that though; it’s not possible to get four of your mates to help you make 5 requests for the information over a 2 year period either.  The law provides that where “different persons who appear to the public authority to be acting in concert or in pursuance of a campaign” the public authority can again aggregate the cost and refuse all of the requests if they exceed the appropriate limit.

The second provision designed to help public bodies with the burden of FOI requests is section 14, which deals with both repeated and vexatious requests.  In terms of repeated requests, if a public authority has complied with a request from someone, they do not have to comply with a request from the same person which is for the same (or substantially similar) information unless a reasonable time has elapsed between the requests.

Vexatious requests are a bit more difficult; however, public authorities have been greatly helped by the decision of the Upper Tribunal in Dransfield (although, Mr Dransfield has appealed this decision to the Court of Appeal).  It is important to note that it is the request, not the person making it, which is vexatious. However, previous correspondence between the requester and the public authority can be relevant.  This provision largely allows public authorities to ignore people trying to use FOI to keep open grievances that have been rumbling on for a long time, especially where they have been the subject of complaints and independent scrutiny.  Section 14 also catches those who are making requests simply to annoy the public authority (quite possibly because of a previous complaint).  However, it can also be used to deal with requests where there is an unacceptable burden to the authority; described as “grossly oppressive”.

This is a higher burden than would be applicable in section 12, but it is an option that is open to authorities where requests produce large volumes of information with a lot of potentially exempt information – especially where those exemptions are qualified ones where the PI might be difficult to determine.  However, the ICO does consider it good practice to go back to the requester before claiming section 14 in these situations – and doing so would probably fall within a public authority’s duty to provide advice and assistance.  So, where a request is overly burdensome and section 14 could be claimed instead of section 12, a public authority should probably go back to the requester and try and work with the requester to refine their request.  Although requesters are not required to (and public authorities are generally discouraged from asking), trying to establish the motive and purpose of the request can help.  Engaging with the requester might save a public authority a lot of time in the long run as it becomes clear that only a tiny proportion of the information that has been uncovered is what the requester is after – the public authority gets to consider a much more refined request and avoids the possibility of an Internal Review and ICO complaint over its application of section 14 (and possibly an adverse finding against it, either in respect of its use of section 14 or its failure to provide advice and assistance).

I note that Surrey Police operates a disclosure log on its website, but that it states it only publishes responses which might have wider interest.  Disclosure logs can be a useful tool for public authorities.  There is an exemption for information which is already reasonably accessible to the requester.  Publishing all responses in a disclosure log on a website might enable public authorities to refuse requests under section 21 of the Act.  This is a quick and simple process that shouldn’t take a huge amount of time.  Most of the time will be spent ensuring that the request isn’t seeking additional information which is not already reasonably accessible to the requester.

This is where the WhatDoTheyKnow website comes into its own – all information released to requesters on that website ends up in the public domain automatically.  Just because it’s not actually published on the authorities own website, doesn’t mean it’s not reasonably accessible to the requester and so section 21 can still be used.  One public authority has even worked with WhatDoTheyKnow to utilise the technology behind WhatDoTheyKnow on their own FOI website, undoubtedly reducing the burden of operating a comprehensive disclosure log.

If public authorities notice trends in their requests, it might be worthwhile proactively releasing the information on a regular basis.  Then the exemption at section 22 is available to the public authority because it is information which is intended for future publication.  This exemption is subject to the Public Interest Test, but there will normally need to be compelling reasons for departing from a set date for publication.  Of course, public authorities would need to consider the cost balance here: is it more costly to routinely publish the information than deal with the FOI requests as they come in?  The UK provision on information intended for future publication is much more generous that the Scottish provision, where it only applies in cases where the intended publication is no later than 12 weeks following receipt of the request.

We often see complaints from public authorities about requests which are bizarre in nature, but as Jon Baines has demonstrated, those apparently bizarre requests do sometimes have a justification behind them.  For the ones that don’t, Tim Turner explains that they can be quickly disposed of.

There are, of course, steps that requesters can take to relieve the burden to public authorities and to that extent I commend Paul Gibbons’ guide to making FOI requests, which includes 10 very good tips for requesters.

A fairly long blog post, so if you have reached this point: thank you and well done!

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Useful Links:

ICO guidance on section 12
ICO guidance on section 14
ICO guidance on section 21
ICO guidance on section 22

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