A local authority disclosed information requested through EIR within 15 days. But the Commissioner has ruled that they failed to answer the request “as soon as possible”, even though they answered well within 20 working days.
This isn’t an April Fool’s joke, despite the date. An interesting decision notice has just been published by the Information Commissioner relating to a request made under the Environmental Information Regulations (EIR). The requester had asked for information from the Local Land Charges Register of Walsall Metropolitan Borough Council.
The council had arranged access to the Register within 15 days of receipt of the request. But the Information Commissioner has ruled that this was not “as soon as possible” as required by reg.5 of the EIR, even though it was within the 20 working days maximum allowed.
I can hear the hiss of the steam escaping from FOI Officers’ ears around the country right now. If the information was provided within 20 days, how can it breach regulation 5? Does this mean that we have to tell our colleagues to drop their other work as soon as an EIR or even an FOI request is received?
Well, hold your horses. The Commissioner accepts that public authorities have to balance their responsibilities. Phew. The requester had also argued that the council could have responded sooner because it responded to land search enquiries, which are paid for, within three days. The Commissioner accepts the Council’s argument that there is a different process for answering EIR requests than for dealing with Land Charges enquiries and that there are good reasons why it takes less time to answer the latter.
So why did the Commissioner find against the council? During his investigations, the Commissioner was told by the Council that one of the departments that had been asked to provide the information had accidentally deleted the email from the FOI team asking for the information. The Commissioner concludes that if that hadn’t happened, the information would have been provided sooner. Therefore, he argues, the information was not provided “as soon as possible”.
Expect more decisions like this on FOI and EIR as the Information Commissioner’s Office are clearly now trying to push authorities to answer requests more promptly.