(a) What exactly is the legal requirement?
Members of the public have, subject to the exemptions, a right to be informed in writing whether the public authority holds information of the description specified in their request (called the duty to confirm or deny), and, if so to have that information communicated to them within a set time limit.
(b) What onus is there on the requester?
The requester must make a request for information in writing (email is acceptable), provide his or her (real) name and address for communication purposes, and describe the information being requested.
The applicant does not have to give a reason for wanting the information requested and we cannot ask.
Queen Mary is not obliged to respond if the applicant, after dialogue, has not provided sufficient information for it to identify and locate the information being requested.
(c) Provision of advice to an applicant
Queen Mary has a duty under the Act to provide advice and assistance to anyone who has made or intends to make a request for information.
(d) Who should deal with enquiries?
However, members of the public may not follow this route, or might apply for information without thinking or knowing about the Act. Accordingly, all members of staff should have some awareness of the Act and respond properly to any enquiry.
In addition, all enquiries should be notified to the College Records & Information Compliance Manager via the foi-enquiries mailbox. If anyone is in any doubt about responding to an enquiry they should immediately refer the matter to firstname.lastname@example.org.
The Act permits the levy of a fee for the provision of information under the Act. If there is a fee for making available documents that come under the Publication Scheme this is stated in the Scheme.
Fees may only be charged for the supply of information not covered by the Publication Scheme if the cost to Queen Mary of responding to the application would amount to £450 or more. This amount is calculated at £25/hour for 18 hours. In these cases it is discretionary for the College to supply the information to the applicant. There are statutory regulations on fees and the Ministry of Justice has issued guidance on them.
It is permissible, however, to charge for disbursements such as photocopying.
In general Queen Mary will not wish to charge for the supply of information since it wishes to be as open as possible and small invoices are not worth the overhead.
In those cases where a fee is payable the applicant must be informed of the fee and where this has been done the information may be withheld until the fee has been paid. The enquirer has a maximum of 3 months in which to pay the fee.
(f) How quickly should enquiries be dealt with?
The Act requires that requests be dealt with promptly and in any case no later than 20 working days from receipt excluding bank holidays. Where payment of a fee is involved or clarification is required, the 20 working day rule is put on hold until the fee is paid or adequate clarification is received.
Given that requests may be sent to any individual or to no specific individual or office in Queen Mary it follows that all staff must have arrangements for their post and email to be checked in their absence in order to ensure compliance with the response period.
(g) What information may be disclosed?
It should be assumed that, subject to the exemptions, any recorded information held by Queen Mary should be made available to an enquirer. This might include research data.
The Act covers any information, not just information generated within the College, as long as it is held by Queen Mary. Thus information received from external agencies (including those who are not public authorities) may, subject to the exemptions, be disclosable. There may be instances where it is appropriate to consult the external agency before disclosure. However, if the information is held by it, it is for Queen Mary rather than the third party to make a decision on disclosure.
The Act is retrospective in that it does not indicate that only current or post 2000 information comes within its remit. Accordingly, information may be requested for any date since the origins of the College. However, the College would not be at fault if it no longer held the information sought, provided it had good reason for no longer holding it, such as information which has been destroyed in compliance with the Records Retention Policy.
JISC has published advice about FOI and Dissertations.
There is additional advice here about FOI and Research.
Queen Mary Statement on Research Involving Animals.
This is a specific feature introduced by Section 102 of the Protection of Freedoms Act 2012. From 1st September 2013 any request for datasets must be supplied in a re-usable format and published under the Publication Scheme. There is more internal guidance and guidance from the ICO.
(i) Locating information
In reality some requests might be satisfied by referral to information that comes under the Publication Scheme or which is available elsewhere on the Queen Mary website. If these are not already available on the web they can routinely be made available to individuals in response.
Others will entail one or more departments being called upon to perform searches or produce the information requested from that held, regardless of whether it is in electronic form e.g. emails or in databases or hard-copy. Information from all sources and in all formats is potentially disclosable.
Some requests might require a search of information that could be held anywhere in the College.
(j) Form of disclosure
Most applicants are likely to be satisfied with a photocopy of a document or access to an electronic version either on the web or as an email attachment or simply to be supplied with the information requested in the body of an email reply.
Applicants are, however, entitled to request either (a) the supply of a copy in a permanent form (which could indeed be a photocopy), (b) to inspect the document(s) or (c) a summary or digest of the information. Reasonable requests should not be refused. If a request is refused the reasons should be given.
In replying to a request Queen Mary will be sensitive to any accessibility issues e.g. the needs of a visually-impaired person and provide the information in an acceptable form as long as this is reasonably practicable. If an applicant advises that s/he requires a specific format because they have a disability, the information must be provided in that format.
Often when supplying information it may be appropriate to supply an extract or to redact part of a document for data protection reasons or to protect commercial or confidential information.
When supplying a copy of information it might be appropriate to advise the recipient that Queen Mary holds the copyright and it is being made available under the Open Government Licence. If a third party owns the copyright this will need to be made clear in any reply as Queen Mary will not be in a position to license for any re-use. The Act does not remove or change any intellectual property rights of information.
(l) Vexatious or repeated requests
Queen Mary is not obliged to respond to requests that may be deemed vexatious or to repeated requests for the same or similar information from the same person within a short timeframe as long as an initial refusal notice has been issued. The ICO has issued guidance on what may be deemed vexatious.
(m) Refusal of a request
It is essential to refer to the Records & Information Compliance Manager via the foi-enquiries mailbox any requests an individual receives that it is felt should be refused. This is to help ensure consistency of practice and to have a coherent interpretation of the exemptions.
When a request for information is refused the enquirer must be advised of this within the timescale for responding to a request and of the exemption that applies and, if not obvious, why the exemption applies. This might also need to cover the reasons why disclosure is deemed not to be in the public interest. The enquirer should also be informed of the relevant appeals procedure that is in place.