Section 5 of the Freedom of Information Act (FOI) enables the Secretary of State to designate a body as a public authority if it appears to the Secretary of State :
(a)… to exercise functions of a public nature, or
(b) is providing under a contract made with a public authority any service whose provision is a function of that authority.
The Freedom of Information (Designation as Public Authorities) Order 2015 was recently debated in the House of Lords. It will make Network Rail subject to FOI from March 2015. Much has been said about extending the reach of FOI to private companies delivering public services. Don’t expect anything to happen before the election.
Fees and 16
How far does a public authority have to go in providing advice and assistance to an applicant whose request is over the fees threshold (£450/£600)?
On 22nd October 2014, in Commissioner of Police for the Metropolis v The Information Commissioner and Donnie Mackenzie,  UKUT 479 (AAC) , the Upper Tribunal ruled that the standard imposed by section 16 is set at a relatively low level. It agreed with the First Tier Tribunal (Information Rights) (FTT), in Beckles v Information Commissioner (EA/2011/0073 & 0074), that:
“S.16 requires a public authority, whether before or after the request is made, to suggest obvious alternative formulations of the request which will enable it to supply the core of the information sought within the cost limits. It is not required to exercise its imagination to proffer other possible solutions to the problem.”
Section 10(1) of FOI sets out the time limit for dealing with a request for information:
“a public authority must comply…promptly and in any event not later than the twentieth working day following the date of receipt.”
Under the Environmental Information Regulations (EIR) the response to a request must be made “as soon as possible and no longer than 20 working days after the date of receipt”. In Keating v Information Commissioner and Oxford City Council (EA/2013/0226) the FTT said that whether it is an FOI or EIR request the principle is the same:
“In our judgement, whichever time limit applies, it is necessary to be realistic. Whilst both pieces of legislation contemplate a speedy response, the urgency intended is not such as to require a public authority to “drop everything” in order to reply.”
We now have a binding authority for this principle, in the form of an Upper Tribunal decision (John v ICO & Ofsted 2014 UKUT 444 AAC.).
Third Party Personal Data
Section 40 provides an exemption from disclosure of personal data about the requestor as well as that of third parties. With regards to the latter, the public authority must show that disclosure would breach of one of the Data Protection Principles (usually the first one). In the absence of consent this usually requires consideration of condition 6(1) of Schedule 2 of the Data Protection Act 1998:
“The processing is necessary for the purposes of legitimate interests pursued by the data controller or by the third party or parties to whom the data are disclosed, except where the processing is unwarranted in any particular case by reason of prejudice to the rights and freedoms or legitimate interests of the data subject.”
In a recent Upper Tribunal Decision, Goldsmith International Business School v IC and Home Office (GIA/1643/2014), the judge endorsed the ICO’s 8 rules when applying the test in condition 6. These are essential reading for all FOI officers.
Names of legal Advisers
Names of staff are clearly personal data. We have examined the application of section 40(2) in a number of FTT decisions (read our blog post here). The test is, is there a legitimate interest in knowing the names and is disclosure necessary to satisfy that interest?
In November 2014 the FTT (in Timothy Couzens v IC EA/2014/0146) upheld the Care Quality Commission’s refusal to supply the names of individuals who provided it with legal advice on the de-registration of a care agency. The FTT found that Couzens had “provided no persuasive argument that disclosure of the names in question would contribute to transparency, given that the substance of the legal advice has been disclosed, as a result of the CQC waiving its right to rely upon the exemption provided by FOIA section 42 (legal professional privilege).”
Is there a difference between a request for salaries of administrative staff and that of academics in a university?
Yes, according to a recent FTT decision involving King’s College, London (EA/2014/0054). The case concerned a request to the college for the job titles and departments of those staff (academic and none academic) earning over £100,000 per annum, in bands of £10,000. The FTT ruled that salaries of most non-academic staff employed by the college should be disclosed. Read this excellent analysis by lawyers at SGH Martineau.
Local authority colleagues will know that a certain amount of salary information has to be proactively published in compliance with the Local Government Transparency Code.
FOI is normally motive and purpose blind. The FTT decision in Hepple v IC and Durham County Council (EA/2013/0168) shows that this is not an absolute rule.
The background is that the Council received an FOI request for a copy of the investigators’ report into a disciplinary incident at a pupil referral unit run by the council. At that time, disciplinary proceedings were pending against each of the suspended members of staff.
The council refused the request, relying on a number of exemptions including section 38 (health and safety). The FTT upheld the decision of the ICO on this point mainly because the requester had sent text messages to some of the individuals involved “with the purpose of menacing those whose addresses the Appellant had acquired”. The FTT said “assessing an information request on this “motive blind” basis ought not to prevent us from considering the potential risk to safety posed by the requester him/herself”.
The Section 42 exemption is often relied upon by public authorities when refusing to disclose legal advice. It is a qualified exemption. A few decisions have required disclosure of legal advice on public interest grounds but these have been few and far between. Indeed, following the Tribunal decision in Bellamy v The Information Commissioner which stated that there is an inherent public interest in maintaining privilege, most authorities were almost treating section 42 as an absolute exemption.
A September 2014 decision of the FTT reminds us that the public interest in disclosing legal advice has to be considered carefully. The Bingham Centre for the Rule of Law v Information Commissioner (EA/2014/0097) concerned a request to the Home Office for independent legal advice, which was referred to in a Home Office report, entitled “Intercept as Evidence.” The FTT disagreed with the ICO’s decision giving more weight to public interest factors in favour of disclosure.
Ibrahim Hasan will be discussing these and other recent FOI decisions in his FOI Update workshop . If you want an internationally recognised qualification in FOI, please consider our BCS FOI Certificate course.