FOIMan considers whether a council handling an employee’s enquiry under FOI is unreasonable.
The latest piece in this mould comes from David Higgerson who often writes about FOI on his journalism blog. His FOI Friday thread highlighting use of FOI by local media is essential reading for journalists and others interested in how FOI is used in practice.
David reports that Derby City Council treated an enquiry from an employee about its pay review approach as an FOI request. The council refused the request. The employee ended up appealing this decision to the Information Commissioner who apparently forced the council to disclose the information.
David’s complaint with this is that the enquiry was treated as an FOI request in the first place, commenting that “sometimes, you just can’t make it up.” Well, I beg to differ.
Obviously, if an enquiry is straightforward and there are no concerns with disclosure, then it makes sense for a public authority to treat it as “business as usual”. But even where that happens, the enquiry – if in writing – is by the definition of an FOI request at section 8 of the Act, an FOI request, and importantly, subject to the requirements of the Act. It has to be answered PROMPTLY, and in any case within 20 working days.
The point I would make here is that whilst the council appears to have made the wrong decision in respect of whether or not to disclose the information, it is not handling the enquiry under FOI that has caused this. In fact, FOI’s role here has been to allow the employee to successfully challenge the council’s refusal to disclose the information. In other words, without FOI, the employee might never have received the information he wanted.
I do think this is an important point. Whilst the timescales in FOI might not be to journalists’ (and indeed others’) liking, the fact of FOI’s existence has led to, and will continue to lead to, information reaching them that would never have done before FOI became law. Before FOI, Derby Council’s employee would never have been able to find out how he and his colleagues’ pay was calculated. And journalists would have had no way to force the release of information that public authority Press Officers were unwilling to provide freely.
No doubt Press Officers do tell journalists to use FOI when they don’t want to tell them something. And HR departments may well do the same when they have a concern about disclosing information to employees. Before FOI they’d have just said “No”.