Archive for Resources

What we don’t know

FOIMan explains why some truths we cling to about the UK’s FOIA are not quite what they seem.

A few months ago I was delivering some FOI training to a local authority (always available at competitive rates, folks!). I was explaining how far council officers were expected to go when searching for information to answer an FOI request. In particular I stated that if it was known that information had been deleted but still potentially existed on a backup, the backup should be searched.

The council’s FOI officer cautiously picked me up on my assertion. They had, they told me, had a written statement from the Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) that contradicted me. So surely I was wrong?

The truth is that despite what we are often led to believe, there are some aspects of FOI law that are not certain. The legal system has not yet settled on the ‘right’ answer. This is the case when it comes to debates about information held on backups and whether it is considered held. In the example above, neither I nor the ICO are technically wrong; but then strictly speaking we’re not right either. We’re both interpreting the existing law, and both interpretations are arguable.

This is because English law revolves around the concept of precedent. But precedent can only be set by courts that make a decision beyond a certain stage. In a recent Upper Tribunal decision (LO v Information Commissioner, [2019] UKUT 34 (AAC) (29 January 2019)), Judge Jacobs was critical of the Information Commissioner for treating decisions of the First-Tier Tribunal (FTT) as ‘authoritative statements of the law’. Strictly speaking, they’re not. When it comes to backups, we only have rulings of the FTT to go on, so there is no definitive answer yet on that issue. Interestingly, on this issue, the ICO choose not to accept the FTT’s approach without question in their guidance.

My latest piece for PDP’s Freedom of Information JournalWhat we don’t know (which you can access here) – looks at this issue in more depth – looking at the backups query, but also a couple of other questions which have not yet been answered definitively – perhaps surprisingly. You’ll see that there are disputes between the ICO, the FTT and the s.45 Code of Practice which will only be resolved if those matters reach the Upper Tribunal. It ends by asking what questions you may have about FOIA or the EIRs – as I’ve mentioned before, we’d like to answer some of your conundrums in a future issue of the Journal.

FOI and Procurement

FOIMan explores how FOI and transparency rules interact with the process of procuring new goods and services by public authorities.

freedom-of-information-graphic-smallOne chapter that didn’t quite make it into my book due to lack of space and time was going to focus on the interaction between FOI and procurement processes (though of course the book still includes useful tips for dealing with requests about contracts). I’ve sought to redress this in my latest article for the Freedom of Information Journal. You can, of course, subscribe to the journal, which contains lots of useful articles and the latest FOI news – details can be found opposite and at http://www.pdpjournals.com. However, you can also read the article here.

My next FOI journal piece will highlight what we don’t know about FOI – some of the ‘facts’ that we bandy around about the Act, but are not quite as set in stone as we might think…

By the way, we’re planning an experiment for a future issue of the journal. If there’s an FOI or EIR problem that you’ve never quite got to the bottom of and would like me to explore, let me know either directly or via PDP. I can’t promise to deal with every query submitted, but the aim is to answer a selection of queries in the article. If it works, we might just do it again. Even if you don’t subscribe to the journal, the eventual article will, as ever, be reproduced here. So if there’s something you don’t know about FOI, and think others might be puzzled by it too, drop me a line with ‘FOI Journal Q&A’ in the subject line and I’ll see what I can do.

 

The Freedom of Information Officer’s Handbook is here

Copies of FOI Officer's HandbookFOIMan announces the publication of his new book designed to assist FOI Officers and anyone else to better understand FOI.

I’m proud to announce the publication of my new book, The Freedom of Information Officer’s Handbook. Formally released by Facet Publishing on 3 January 2019, it is now available to purchase from online retailers, or from the publisher direct (see the end of this post for details of how to obtain a discount on the cover price as a reader of this blog).

Elizabeth Barber, chair of the Public Sector Group of the Information and Records Management Society, describes the Handbook as:

a practical guide which takes the reader on a journey through the intricacies of dealing with FOI…It contains everything you ever wanted to know about FOI and in a really easy to read format.

Whilst Jonathan Baines, well-known commentator on information rights and Data Protection Adviser at Mishcon de Reya, welcomed:

the first book which really meets the needs of and challenges facing FOI practitioners.

The book is intended as a practical guide to FOI for those who administer freedom of information and transparency requirements. However, anyone with an interest in FOI – as a requester, from an academic perspective, or otherwise – will, I hope, find the Handbook a valuable tool in better understanding FOI’s requirements and its practical implementation. The book is focussed on the UK experience of FOI, but contains extensive coverage of similar laws elsewhere and highlights the key differences between different FOI laws. As Elizabeth Barber comments, “[t]he book can be used either as a cover-to-cover read for those who are new to FoI or as a dip-in reference resource for those who are more experienced.”

The Freedom of Information Officer’s Handbook is divided into three sections:

  • Understanding the Act – looking at the history of FOI, its geographical spread, how to interpret the UK’s FOI Act including a whole chapter dedicated to the exemptions, and a guide to other sources of help
  • FOI in Context – with chapters on the Environmental Information Regulations, data protection and GDPR, records management and public records laws, transparency requirements (including open data) and copyright
  • FOI in Practice – exploring the role of the FOI Officer, what infrastructure is needed to support compliance, the stages of handling a request, how to communicate effectively with applicants and a guide to conducting internal reviews and the role of the Information Commissioner.

One copy of the FOI Officer's HandbookFor me, the release of the Handbook on 3 January 2019 marked the culmination of almost two years of hard work, and I’m extremely proud of the finished product. I hope readers will indulge me talking about it over the next few months – as anyone who has written a book will testify, it involves a huge commitment of time and effort. As an author, I’d obviously like as many people as possible to read what I’ve created.

In addition though, I wrote this book because I felt that there wasn’t enough support (or credit) given to FOI practitioners. So I hope that at least a few FOI Officers will gain some confidence from the content of the Handbook. And if anyone else reads it, that they will have more respect for, and understanding of, the people who do their best to make FOI work in practice.

More details about The Freedom of Information Officer’s Handbook, including a full list of the contents, can be found on the Facet Publishing website. You can also read Elizabeth Barber’s and Jonathan Baines’s opinions of the book in full there.


If you would like to obtain a copy of The Freedom of Information Officer’s Handbook, you can get a 30% discount on the RRP of £64.95 (purchasing it for £45.45) by emailing info(Replace this parenthesis with the @ sign)facetpublishing.co.uk, quoting the code FOIBLOG30. Do not supply payment card or bank account details by email. The publisher’s distributor will then contact you to arrange payment and discuss where to send your copy.

FOI in English Local Authorities in 2016

FOIMan summarises the results of research into the numbers of FOI requests that local authorities in England received in 2016.

The new s.45 code of practice requires all public authorities to publish data on their FOI performance, but that hasn’t always been required. Outside of central government, the availability of reliable data on FOI request volumes is patchy to say the least.

Local government is reputed to receive the most FOI requests of all public authorities. Between 2005 and 2011, the Constitution Unit at UCL carried out valuable research into FOI in local government, including request volumes. The reports on their research can be found on the UCL website.

Since the 2011 report (on 2010), there hasn’t been any comprehensive data available on FOI volumes in local government in England (to my knowledge). As regular readers will know, I conducted some research into FOI in local government as part of the preparation for my book The Freedom of Information Officer’s Handbook. In Autumn 2017, I wrote to a sample of councils across the country and asked them a number of questions. Amongst those questions I asked for the number of requests received in 2016 and the number of those requests answered in 20 working days.

In my latest article for the Freedom of Information Journal I have reported on the results of these questions, and compared them to UCL’s research to examine the trends in council request volumes. It will come as no surprise to learn that request volumes appear to have continued to rise over that period.

If you want to read more about the outcomes of my research, other aspects (including how requests are managed and how performance is monitored) are explored in detail in The Freedom of Information Officer’s Handbook which will be published at the beginning of January 2019 by Facet Publishing. Details of how to order a copy at a discount can be found at the top of the sidebar opposite.

FOI and diaries – long read

FOIMan’s latest article for PDP’s Freedom of Information Journal explores how requests for diaries of public officials should be handled.

A few weeks ago I wrote a blog post about FOI and diaries in response to an article in the Guardian. Coincidentally I had just written a piece for PDP on the same subject and I promised to publish it here when it was published.

As promised then, here is my latest piece for PDP’s Freedom of Information Journal, on FOI and diaries.