Category: FOISA

Your Right to Know: International Right to Know Day 2013

ImageToday (28 September) is International Right to Know Day, it is a day which highlights your right to know and obtain official information.

In the UK the Freedom of Information Act 2000, Freedom of Information (Scotland) Act 2002, the Environmental Information Regulations 2004 and the Environmental Information (Scotland) Regulations 2004 give people anywhere in the world the right to be given information held by public authorities in the UK, subject to certain exemptions.

It is possible to request information from the UK and devolved Governments, from the police, local councils, the NHS, the prison authorities, the prosecution authorities, the court services and a whole range of other public bodies.  Not only is it possible to request it, but you have the right to be given the information where it is not exempt from disclosure by one of the specified exemptions (or in the case of Environmental Information, exceptions) in the legislative provisions.

Even if an authority states that information is exempt, you have the right to ask them to think again and if they still refuse to give you the information you have the right to ask the relevant Information Commissioner to investigate and decide whether the public authority was right.

The Right to Know is an important right, it helps to hold those who make decisions and spend public money accountable for the decisions that they make and the money that they spend.  It can aid the public’s understanding of the decision making process and can also help public authorities to see where they could be doing things better.

However, as it is an important right it must be used properly.  Using it to annoy or upset individuals in a public authority, to carry on a personal dispute with a public authority or using it with no real purpose behind receiving the information isn’t helpful.  It costs money to process a request and it does take public authority staff away from delivering their core function, which will have an impact on the public authority.  Inappropriate use of the Act could lead to important information access rights being lost or reduced and that would be bad for everyone.

Over the years the way in which public services have been delivered is having an impact on the ability of the public to properly hold those responsible for making decisions and spending public money to account.  This has resulted in an effective reduction in the information access rights that people have.

Freedom of Information is important.  However, Government’s should be a lot more proactive in their release of information.  There are many benefits to this, not least if it’s already in the public domain somebody doesn’t have to request it through information access rights.

I’m using International Right to Know day to write to my elected representatives reminding them of the importance of FOI, and to ask them to ensure that they press the Government to extend and protect FOI as well as pressing the Government to be more open and pro-active with information in the first place.

Useful Resources:
UK Information Commissioner – http://www.ico.org.uk
Scottish Information Commissioner – http://www.itspublicknowledge.info
WhatDoTheyKnow – http://www.whatdotheyknow.com
Freedom of Information Act 2000 – http://www.legislation.gov.uk/ukpga/2000/36/contents
Environmental Information Regulations 2004 – http://www.legislation.gov.uk/uksi/2004/3391/contents/made
Freedom of Information (Scotland) Act 2002 – http://www.legislation.gov.uk/asp/2002/13/contents
Environmental Information (Scotland) Regulations 2004 – http://www.legislation.gov.uk/ssi/2004/520/contents/made

Transparency in the reporting of FOI responses?

Today I noticed a line in a BBC News report which I see fairly frequently in news reports that have come from FOI requests and it made me think about whether the reporting is fair on the public authorities concerned.

In this instance the Liberal Democrats had requested information from local councils in Scotland concerning racist incidents recoded at schools. The figures used in the report were based on the responses of three-quarters of the local authorities in Scotland. The BBC report included the wording:

“The party submitted Freedom of Information (FOI) requests to local councils and received responses from three-quarters of them.”

I don’t consider such wording to be fair to the quarter of local authorities who, by implication, haven’t responded. It implies that a quarter of local authorities in Scotland have failed to respond, and as such are failing to comply with the law.  Section 10(1) of the Freedom of Information (Scotland) Act 2002 requires public authorities to respond to requests promptly, and in any even no later than the twentieth working day following receipt. The only exception is where the request (or a similar one) from the same requester has been judged as vexatious and it would be unreasonable for the authority to issue another notice. In such cases the public authority is not obliged to issue a further refusal notice.

Sometimes public authorities fail to comply with section 10(1) for a variety of reasons. However, I find it hard to believe that a quarter of Scotland’s local authorities failed to do so in respect of the same request (although some may have).  That leaves us with a number of explanations as to why there are only figures for 3/4 Scottish local authorities in this case.

1) The Lib Dems released the figures before the 20 working days were up. Some public authorities (including some local authorities) are very good at responding in a time frame much quicker than permitted by law (personally the quickest I ever received a full substantive response from a local authority was one working day – and it included the information I’d requested in full). This seems unlikely though.

2) That some of the local authorities refused the request. This could have been for a variety of reasons: they didn’t hold the information requested, it would have exceeded the appropriate limit or it applied one of the exemptions to the information permitted by the Act).

The second reason above seems the most likely and this is very different from the implication given by the BBC in its coverage of the story. There would have been a response because FOISA requires public authorities to issue refusal notices in all the cases described in number 2.  The response may not have included any disclosure of information, but that’s not the same as receiving no response.

I said at the outset of this post that this phrase is one that is heard or seen often in the reporting of stories which have originated out of FOI. It begs the question: Is this fair reporting? I would have to say that it would appear not to be; implying authorities are not complying with the law without providing the evidence to back it up isn’t very fair. Who is to blame though? The news outlet making the report or the requestor? In some cases the two will be the same.

So should reporting of the results of FOI requests be more transparent?

UK Supreme Court: South Lanarkshire Council v Scottish Information Commissioner

On 8 July 2013 the United Kingdom Supreme Court heard its first appeal in a Freedom of Information case under the Freedom of Information (Scotland) Act 2002 since the functions of the Law Lords in the House of Lords transferred to the Supreme Court.  The case concerned the appeal by South Lanarkshire Council agains a decision of the Inner House of the Court of Session.  That appeal was brought by South Lanarkshire Council against decision notice 056/2011 issued by the Scottish Information Commissioner.  The UK Supreme Court (Lady Hale sitting with Lords Kerr, Wilson, Reed and Carnworth)  issued its judgment dismissing the appeal on 29 July 2013.

In Decision 056/2011 the Scottish Information Commissioner had found that South Lanarkshire Council had not been enetitled to withhold information as to the number of persons at specific points on the Council’s pay spine under section 38 of the Freedom of Information (Scotland) Act 2002.  I wrote about this case when the Inner House issued its decision (also dismissing the appeal by South Lanarkshire Council), you can find out more about the case generally (and the Court of Session’s opinion) in that post.

The case is an important one for information law as it provides some important guidance on the tension between the Freedom of Information (Scotland) Act 2002 and the Data Protection Act 1998 (specifically, condition 6 of Schedule 2).  It is clear from this case and others (such as Common Services Agency v Scottish Information Commissioner [2008] UKHL 47, 2008 SC (HL) 184) that there is certainly no presumption in favour of Freedom of Information over the protections in the Data Protection Act 1998.  Indeed, reading the legislation gives the opposite impression.  The protections for personal data in the Freedom of Information (Scotland) Act 2002 are absolute (i.e. once they apply, that is the end of the matter).

The first data protection principle in Schedule 1 to the Data Protection Act 1998 requires that a data controller shall process personal data only in a way that is fair and lawful.  The Act goes on to provide that personal data cannot be processed unless at least one of the conditions in Schedule 2 are met.  The case at had concerned condition 6 in schedule 2 which permits the processing of personal data where it is necessray for the legitimate interests of the data controller or any third party.  There is a qualification, in that the processing must not happen if it would be contrary to the fundamental rights of the data subject.  The case centred on the correct interpretation of ‘necessary’ in condition 6 of schedule 2.

In the Supreme Court’s judgment, Lady Hale made reference to a number of decicions of the European Court of Justice which supported the view taken by the Divisional Court in Corporate Office of the House of Commons v The Information Commisisoner [2008] EWHC 1084 (Admin) that the word ‘necessary’ had to be inrepreted in light of the European Convention on Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms 1950.

In Rechnungshof v Osterrichischer Rundfunk the European Court of Justice stated, at paragraph 68:

“the provisions of Directive 95/46, in so far as they govern the processing of personal data likely to infringe fundamental freedoms, in particular the right to privacy, must necessarily be interpreted in the light of fundamental rights, which, according to settled case law, form an integral part of the general principles of law whose observance the Court ensures.”

The ECJ held that if the national legislation was incompatable with Article 8, it was unable to satisfy the proportionality requirements in article 7(c) or (e) of the EC Directive 95/46 (to which the Data Protection Act 1998 gives effect to in the United Kingdom).

This approach was followed by the ECJ in Huber v Bundesrepublik Deutschland, and so in order to be compatable with the proportionality requirements in the Data Protection Directive, the processing must be compatale with Article 8 of the European Convention on Human Rights and Fundemantal Freedoms.

Lady Hale observed at paragraph 26 that the information which Mr Irvine had requested would not allow him, or anyone else, to identify the individuals in question.  As such it was “quite difficult to see why there is any interference with their right to respect for their private lives.” As such, Lady Hale stated, also at paragraoh 26, that applying article 7(f) and condition 6 in their own terms was sufficient.

Delivering a final blow to the Council, Lady Hale conculded that the Scottish Information Commissioner “had applied a test that was probably more favourable to the Council than was required and certainly no less favourable.” (Paragraph 28).

So, while it was not really necessray to consider Article 8 of the European Convention on Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms in this case due to the data subjects not being identifiable from the information requested, it is clear from the ECJ case law in lady Hale’s judgment that Article 8 is a consideration that must be taken into consideration when considering disclosing information under the Freedom of Information (Scotland) Act 2002 which is the personal information of an identifiable data subject.

Requirements for refusal under FOISA section 18: OSIC Decision 100/2013

Today the Scottish Information Commissioner published decision 100/2013, a decision in which I was the applicant.  The public authority involved was the Scottish Ministers.  The decision explores some of the technical requirements around issuing a notice under section 18 of the Freedom of Information (Scotland) Act 2002.

The request

On 26 January 2012 a request for information under the Freedom of Information (Scotland) Act 2002 was submitted to the Scottish Ministers concerning an issue around the independence referendum that was, at the time, a live issue.  The issue concerned whether the Scottish Parliament had the legislative competence to hold a referendum on scottish infependence.  The question of legislative competence has been settled by The Scotland Act 1998 (Modification of Schedule 5) Order 2013.  The request sought only the identities of those who had provided the Scottish Ministers with legal advice and not the content of that advice.

The purpose of the request was to establish whether the Ministers had received advice on this point and who was providing the Scottish Ministers with advice while considering any public information as to their specialities, thus providing some assistance in understanding the authority of the advice given.

The Minister’s response

The Ministers did not respond to the initial request for information and responded late when a request for review was submitted.  Eventually, the Ministers responded refusing to confirm or deny whether they held information within the scope of the request under section 18.  They did not specify which exemptions would apply if the information were held.

Section 18

Section 18 exempts public authorities from complying with the normal duty of confirming or denying whether information is held by it which falls within the scope of the request.  It can only be deployed where certain exemptions could apply if the information were held, and where the public interest is in refusing to confirm or deny whether information is held (not only whether it would be in the public interest to maintain the exemption(s) cited if the information were held).

Information Notice

On 16 January 2013 it became necessary for the Scottish Information Commissioner to issue the Scottish Ministers with an information notice in order for her office’s enquiries to progress.

The Commissioner’s Decision

One of the aspects which was raised within the application for a decision from the Commissioner was whether the Minister’s response to the internal review was technically valid.  It is upon this question that the Commissioner’s decision centres.

As already stated, the Scottish Ministers cited section 18, but did not state which exemption(s) they considered would apply if the information were held by them.  The Minister’s argued that this was not necessary.  The application for a decision argued that it was required, and the Commissioner agreed that it was required.  Thus, the Commissioner found that the Ministers had not issued a valid response to the requirement for review.

Analysis

This is a purely technical decision, but it sets out clearly what public authorities must include in a section 18 notice and provides the legislative authority for that position.

Section 18(1) of FOISA specifically states that an authority can, by virtue of Section 18, give an applicant a refusal notice under section 18 where the conditions of section 18 are met; that is that if the information was held certain exemptions would apply and that it is in the public interest not to confirm or deny whether the information sought is held.  Section 18(2) goes on to state that section 16(1)(a) or section 16(2) don’t apply when public authorities are issuing refusal notices under section 18.

Section 16 deals with the content of refusal notices and unless the Act specifies otherwise, all refusal notices must contain the information set out in section 16.  Section 16(1)(a) requires a public authority to disclose that it holds the information sought (so logically, it is disapplied for section 18 notices as the purpose of section 18 is to neither confirm nor deny whether information sought is held).  Section 16(2) is the requirement that the public authority set out in its refusal notice the public interest arguments for and against releasing information where it is applying an exemption under Part II of the Act (i.e. Sections 25-41 of FOISA).

The key part to the Commissioner’s decision is the use of the term ‘refusal notice’ within section 18 to describe the notice that it permits a public authority to issue.  A section 18 notice is a refusal notice for the purposes of FOISA.  Section 73 of FOISA is the interpretation section and states that “refusal notice” has the meaning given by section 16(1) (including that section as read with section 18(2)).

So, what does all of this mean?  Well, simply it means that a notice issued under section 18 must comply with all the elements of section 16, except those specifically excluded by section 18(2) of FOISA.  In other words, a notice under section 18 must state the following:

  1. State that the public authority is applying section 18 [section 16(1)(b)]
  2. State which exemptions permitted by section 18 would be permitted if the information were held [Section 16(1)(c)]
  3. State why the exemption applies (unless it is otherwise apparent why the exemption applies) [section 16(1)(d)] – qualified by section 16(3)

In essence any public authority issuing a notice under section 18 of FOISA must state which exemptions permitted by section 18 it considers would apply if the information were held by it.

It would not appear though, from reading the Act (although this point is not specifically covered by the Commissioner’s decision notice), that public authorities are required to justify in their section 18 refusal notice why it is contrary to the public interest to confirm or deny whether information requested is held. However, this may well be a question that the Commissioner would put to the public authority when during any investigation, and it can be argued it would be good practice to state in any section 18 notice the reasoning behind applying section 18 (so long as doing so does not in itself confirm or deny whether information is held).  Setting out the reasoning in a section 18 notice could prevent an internal review or an investigation by the Commissioner.

Scottish Government moves to recover lost FOI rights

On Friday it was announced that the Deputy First Minister of Scotland, Nicola Sturgeon MSP, laid before Parliament an order under section 5 of the Freedom of Information (Scotland) Act 2002.

Section 5 of the Freedom of Information (Scotland) Act gives the Scottish Ministers the power to designate such persons or bodies that appear to the Scottish Ministers to exercise functions of a public nature or are providing, under a contract made with a Scottish public authority, any service whose provision is a function of that authority as public authorities for the purposes of the Freedom of Information (Scotland) Act 2002.

The power under section 5 has never before been used by any member of the Scottish Administration since the Act came into force on 1 January 2005.  Schedule 1 to the Freedom of Information (Scotland) Act 2002, which sets out those persons and bodies covered by the Act, has been amended by other statutory provisions as new public bodies have been created and as existing public bodies are abolished.

The new order, if approved, will make arm’s length bodies established by local authorities to provide cultural, sports and leisure services public authorities under the Freedom of Information (Scotland) Act 2002.  Since the Act was passed in 2002 there has bene a significant shift in the way that public services have been provided.  Local authorities have established companies to carry out a whole variety of functions.  These companies are not covered by the Freedom of Information (Scotland) Act 2002 and their establishment has represented a loss of information access rights.

This move is to be welcomed and it is an important step forward in ensuring that those who are responsible for spending public money and delivering public services are accountable directly to the people of Scotland for how they spend that money and provide those services.   However, it does little more than recover information access rights that have been lost and rectify a government failure in not designating these bodies earlier.  There remain bodies who carry out important public functions which, it is argued, should be covered by the Freedom of Information (Scotland) Act 2002.  If the Scottish Government is serious about FOI and extending its coverage, then it ought to go further and consult on other bodies (such as COSLA, the Law Society of Scotland and the Faculty of Advocates).

Changes to FOI in Scotland from 31 May 2013

Friday 31 May 2013 is the day appointed by the Scottish Ministers upon which the Freedom of Information (Amendment) (Scotland) Act 2013 comes into force.  This Act amends the Freedom of Information (Scotland) Act 2002 in some technical respects, and this post is a brief overview of the changes that will come into force next week.

Neither confirm nor deny

Section 18 of the Freedom of Information (Scotland) Act 2002 exempts public authorities from their normal requirement to identify whether information requested in a FOI request is held or not.  It applies only where certain exemptions could be claimed if the information were held.  Currently, public authorities cannot ‘neither confirm nor deny’ whether information is held if that information is personal information (exemption under section 38).  From Friday 31 May 2013, public authorities will be able to deploy section 18 where the information held is personal information.

Information available in the publication scheme

The Freedom of Information (Scotland) Act 2002 will be amended from 31 May 2013 to make it clear that information contained in a public authorities publication scheme is ‘otherwise accessible’ where applicable fees required by the public authority are set out in the publication scheme.  This will ensure that public authorities can utilise the section 25 exemption for information that is otherwise accessible to information contained within its publication scheme.

Historical Periods

Some of the exemptions in Part II of the Freedom of Information (Scotland) Act 2002 are no longer available to public authorities after a certain period of time has elapsed.  Changes to the Freedom of Information (Scotland) Act 2002 coming into force next week will give the Scottish Ministers more latitude in varying the periods that exemptions apply to certain classes of information.  They will be able to be much more specific in the exercising of this power than was previously allowed by Parliament.

Prosecution Time Limits

The time limit for prosecuting a public authority for alleged offence sunder section 65 of the Freedom of Information (Scotland) Act 2002 has been modified so as to make it possible to bring prosecutions where it appears that offences have been committed.  For all offences which have been committed on or after 31 May 2013, the 6 month time period for brining a prosecution will begin on the date that evidence which the prosecutor believes is sufficient to justify bringing proceedings comes to the knowledge of the prosecutor (and no more than 3 years after the date the offence was committed, or ceased to be committed in the case of a continuing contravention of section 65).  A certificate signed by the prosecutor as to the date sufficient evidence came to the prosecutor’s knowledge to justify brining proceedings will be conclusive of that fact.

Designation of authorities

The Scottish Ministers will be accountable to Parliament over their use (or lack of) of their power to designate bodies as public authorities for the purposes of the Freedom of Information (Scotland) Act 2002 under section 5.  The Ministers must lay a report before Parliament by 31 October 2015, and every 2 years after that, explaining why the power at section 5 has been exercised or gone unexercised.

The people whom the Ministers must consult before exercising their powers under section 5 of the Act has been extended to include ‘other persons as they consider appropriate’ in addition to those bodies covered by any proposed order (or those appearing to represent them).  This should, hopefully, open up section 5 order consultations to the public as well as the Scottish Information Commissioner.

FOI and requests for documents

In yesterday’s regular ‘decisions round-up’, the Scottish Information Commissioner once again issued warnings about valid FOI requests to public authorities.  It has been a theme in recent months that authorities have been refusing requests for documents on the basis of the request not being a valid information request.

It is absolutely correct that the Freedom of Information (Scotland) Act 2002 does not provide a right to copies of documents, but to information.  That is clear from Glasgow City Council v Scottish Information Commissioner.  However, the Commissioner (both the previous and the incumbent commissioners) have said that a request for copies of documents remains a valid request for information.  This is on the basis that section 8 of the FOISA requires that a person adequately describes the information that they are seeking in order to enable the public authority to locate it.  There can be no better explanation of the information sought than reference to specific document(s).  Such requests hugely reduce the amount of work that a public authority has to do in order to locate the information.  Refusal is likely to cost the authority more as appeals to the Commissioner will take up time which could have been better spent simply progressing the request.  In the end they’re still probably going to have to process a request, even if it is re-worded slightly, and they will have wasted money on the initial refusal.

As has already been said in this post (and in others on this blog), FOISA does not give people a right to a copy of a document, only to the information contained within it.  It would not be very cost effective for the public authority to reproduce an entire document, so it’s likely that in practice an applicant will receive a copy of the document (with any redactions made by the authority) in fulfilment of their request.

Public authorities should only really be refusing requests for non-compliance with section 8(1)(c) where it is not at all clear what information the applicant is actually seeking, not because they’re not familiar with the intricacies of Freedom of Information law.  Their ‘advice and assistance’ duty might well mean that when issuing a substantive response to the request that they advise of the right to information and not to documents.

While public authorities should not be refusing requests on the grounds that applicants are not entitled to documents, but rather to the information contained within them, it might be sensible simply to ask for “all the information contained in…” or “the full content of…”; doing so will likely save applicants the frustration of dealing with a pedantic authority acting against the clear advice of the Scottish Information Commissioner.

Public authority contact details and FOI

This is an FOI decision from the Information Commissioner that I have planned to blog about for some time, but have now only just got round to blogging about it.  On 11 March 2013 the ICO issued decision notice FS50468600 which involved the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP).  The content of the decision notice is not all that important until we turn to paragraphs 32-36, which are headed up as “other matters”.

In particular paragraph 35 is of note in which it states that his office experienced difficulty in actually speaking to those who were involved in the request at the DWP’s side of things.  It described the DWP’s practice of not providing telephone numbers or contact details within its responses and how this makes it very difficult for the appropriate contact to be located within the organisation.  The public authority advised the Commissioner that it did not include these details so as not to breach the privacy of the non-senior staff involved; it described the staff in question as not being in public-facing roles.

In Paragraph 36 of the decision notice the Commissioner states quite clearly that he does not agree with this approach.  The decision notice states that “if such staff are responding to requests made under the FOIA then he considers this to be a public-facing role which is unlikely to attract an expectation of privacy” (Paragraph 36).

The DWP are by no means the only public authority which has adopted similar processes in respect of FOI requests.  I can remember one time trying to get hold of a central Government department (I can’t remember exactly which one, but I have a feeling it was either the Home Office or a connected public authority) to discuss a response that had been issued by them (something that merely wasn’t very clear and, as it later transpired wasn’t in need of an internal review). However, there was no contact details provided for the individual.  I was informed that the FOI team were not public-facing and they wouldn’t speak to members of the public over the telephone.

It was very frustrating and actually resulted in a higher cost to the public authority in my case.  There was just one thing that I wasn’t clear about and I’m sure that had I been able to have a quick telephone conversation with the person who issued the decision then there would have been no need for them to conduct an internal review.  However, the Authority’s attitude and processes meant my only option to get the clarification was to request an internal review.  This will have then required a senior member of staff within the authority to review the entire handling of the request and issue a response to me; far more expensive than 5 minutes on the phone explaining something to the applicant.

Not publishing contact details for those responsible for FOI within the organisation also makes seeking advice and assistance from the public authority almost impossible.  My reading of the Act suggests to me that advice and assistance is not only something to be provided in a refusal notice, but something that should be available to prospective applicants.  I know that I’ve certainly phoned up a public authority and had a chat with them about a request before making it; as a consequence I have been able to frame my request in a way that has made it a much more efficient process for the public authority (and thereby reducing the cost to the taxpayer).  The FOI Officer, knowing the structure of their organisation and how information is generally held, was able to advise as to what information they were likely to hold and how it was likely to be held.

I tend to agree with the commissioner that anyone sending a response out to a FOI request is clearly public-facing; it might be that a particular role was not public facing pre-FOI, but in these post-FOI days anyone could, in theory, be a public-facing member of an authority’s staff.  It should be easy for applicants to contact public authorities, not least because the public authority is obliged to provide advice and assistance, but it can just save public authorities money.  It can help ensure more focused FOIs that are easier to deal with and can prevent expensive internal review requests (or perhaps even more expensive ICO investigations).

Hopefully the ICO’s criticisms of this approach in this decision notice will feed their way round any other public authorities who still adopt a practice of not giving out contact details for someone able to provide advice and assistance.

OSIC Decison 42/2013: Mr Ackroyd and the University of St. Andrews

I’ve been meaning to blog about this particular decision of the Scottish Information Commissioner for a couple of weeks now, but have just not had the time.  On 14 March 2013 the Commissioner issued her decision regarding a complaint made to her by Mr Martin Ackroyd in respect of the way in which the University of St. Andrews handled an information request (Decision 42/2013).

The background is set out in paragraphs 1 – 6 of the Commissioner’s decision.  Mr Ackroyd requested information in respect of E-mails received by a particular employee of the University.  The employee had written an article on an internet blog.  The employee later commented on the article alluding to embarrassing E-mails that he had been receiving as a result of the article.  It was these E-mails that Mr Ackroyd had requested.

The University argued that it did not hold the information for the purposes of the Freedom of Information (Scotland) Act 2002 (FOISA) stating that it held them on behalf of the employee (thus they would fall outside of the scope of FOISA by virtue of section 3(2)(a)(i) of the Act).  In the alternative it argued that even if it did in fact hold the E-mails that they would be exempt from disclosure under sections 38(1)(b) and 36(1) of FOISA.  These exemptions relate to personal information and confidentiality respectively.

Mr Ackroyd was dissatisfied with the Universities response and sent a requirement for review to the University.  In response the University upheld its original decision with modification.  The University still argued that the E-mails were not held for the purposes of FOISA, but if they were they would also be covered by section 30(b)(ii) of FOISA which relates to information which if disclosed would or would likely be to inhibit substantially the free and frank exchange of views for the purposes of deliberation.

Mr Ackroyd remained dissatisfied and sought a decision from the Scottish Information Commissioner pursuant to s.47(1) of FOISA.

The first thing that the Commissioner decided was that at least some of the information held was environmental information within the meaning od Regulation 2 of the Environmental Information (Scotland) Regulations 2004 (EISRs).  As a consequence the decision considers both FOISA and the EISRs.

The facts of the request get slightly more complicated.  The employee in question had bene the convener of a seminar held at the University and the blog that was written related to that seminar; it was published shortly after.  The decision notes that Mr Ackroyd drew attention to a certain comment in the blog piece “indicating that he [the employee] was commenting in his capacity as the convenor of the seminar” (paragraph 28).  The decision also records (at paragraph 28) that the employee had commented on the blog and mentioned papers that he (the employee) had written on the subject in question.  Mr Ackroyd argued that these two things together (along with other matters dealt with in paragraphs 29-31 of the decision) meant that the employee was acting in his capacity as an employee of the University.

The University argued that the life of an academic is such that the connection between work and private life is so fine and that sometimes they cross over.  They argued that an academic might use their association with the university in order to gain some credibility in their private life rather than as an employee of the university.  The University also argued that the convention of academic freedom created some independence between the University and its academics.  “The University also stated that it (and universities in general) extended to academic communities a relatively high degree of space, freedom and autonomy to engage with academic disciplines and pursuits and, as a result, information may be created which it would not move to claim or exert control over.” (para35)

There are more to the arguments of Mr Ackroyd and the University, but for the sake of brevity and so as to avoid replicating the Commissioner’s decision in full I have not mentioned all the ones referenced in the Commissioner’s decision.  They can be read in full in paragraphs 26-38 of the decision.

What did the Commissioner find?

The Commissioner decided that the seminar which had been chaired by the employee was part of the employee’s work at the University (paragraph 43).  The Commissioner also decided that the blog post was a continuation of the discourse of the seminar which he had chaired in his capacity as an employee of the University (paragraph 43) and that the employees ongoing involvement in the discussion that arose out of the seminar cannot be separated from the employee’s work at the University (paragraph 44).  Despite the personal nature of the e-mails the commissioner decided that they were held by the University for the purposes of FOISA (paragraph 49).  Paragraphs 60-62 deal with whether the information was held for the purpose of the EISRs and the commissioner reached the same conclusion as she did in respect of section 3(2)(a)(i) of FOISA (paragraph 62).

The Commissioner then went on to consider the exemptions that the University would have sought to apply had it been the case it held the information (which the Commissioner determined it did).  For the reasons set out in paragraphs 51-57 the commissioner found that section 30(b)(ii) of FOISA was not engaged and therefore not relevant.  No consideration was given to section 36 as it would appear that the University may have stopped relying on that exemption.

The Commissioner ordered the release of the withheld information to Mr Ackroyd subject to some redactions made by the Commissioner.

Discussion

 

Before giving my thoughts on the decision I will note that I have only the Commissioner’s decision to go on.  I have not seen the blog or the comments nor have I seen the E-mails in question.

This is an interesting decision and one of importance for the Higher Education sector.  The decision explores some of the anomalies in the academic world that do not generally appear in other public authorities; namely the convention of academic freedom.  However, the decision could have wider application beyond the Higher Education sector.

Should academics be worried about the impact of the decision? I would suggest that they should not be.  It appears clear from the decision that where there is a genuine separation between the work undertaken by an academic on behalf of the University and that undertaken by the academic in a private capacity that the information will not be subject to FOISA.

For example, if an individual gives a lecture to an organisation because they are a specialist in the field and they mention their connection to a University I don’t think anything held on the University’s computer systems (or indeed the academic’s private systems) would become subject to FOISA simply because they establish their credibility by referencing the University at which they work.  Only where that lecture was given in the course of the academic’s employment at the University would it become subject to FOISA.

It is clear that the balance between what an academic does privately and what they do as part of their employment at the University is finely balanced.  Simply because an academic undertakes work in their spare time and the work is not such that the University would lay claim to it or it was not work which the University had sought the employee to undertake will not meant that it is not subject to FOISA or the EISRs.

It’s certainly an important decision and one that all FOI Officers in Scottish colleges and universities should have tucked away for reference to at a later time; it is not unlikely that similar situations will arise again in the future (especially given the public nature of academics work).

Police Scotland and Freedom of Information

Next week the Police Service of Scotland will take responsibility for policing Scotland from the current eight police forces in Scotland.  This will have implications for Freedom of Information, at least in the short-term.

The cost of handling an FOI request is likely to increase dramatically meaning that requestors may frequently have their requests refused under section 12 of the Act (excessive cost of compliance).  The new single force will continue to run eight separate IT systems while new IT systems are procured and launched.   Undoubtedly it will take some time for information held in paper form to be better organised taking account of the new single force structure.  Therefore, searching for information held by the new force will be rather time consuming.  In some requests the new force will be required to carry out the same searches within each of the boundaries of the eight forces; if some of the old forces held the requested information on multiple systems then you could be looking at more than eight almost identical searches per request.  That’s a lot of staff time simply locating whether the information is held by the force.

It is likely that most requestors will only want the information as it relates to their old force area and so it might be worthwhile for the next year or so ensuring that when you are requesting information that you are as geographically specific as possible.  For example, if you would have requested the information from only Strathclyde Police were it still in existence, then state in your request that you are only interested in the information held which relates to the old Strathclyde area.

Currently if you wish a nationwide view then you would be requesting the information from the eight forces and the cost to each force would be separate from the other forces.  However, now you will be requesting it from a single body meaning the cost of searching within each of the old force areas is burdened by one organisation (the new single force).  As a consequence of this it will be aggregated and might engage section 12 much more easily than before.

When the new force comes into existence it will be under a great level of scrutiny to ensure that it is delivering what is needed in Scotland, but it may well become more difficult for the public and journalists to hold the force to account through FOI.

It will certainly be worthwhile watching the responses from the new single force to see if there is an increase in the number of section 12 refusals.  An increase would mean less public scrutiny of a very large public authority with an enormous budget and a significant amount of power.