Tag Archive for EIR

FOI, Datasets and the Protection of Freedoms Bill

A little while ago, Ibrahim Hasan of Act Now Training kindly asked me to write a piece for their Information Law Newsletter. It appears in the latest issue which has been published today.

In summary, I talk about the proposed amendments to the UK Freedom of Information Act in the Protection of Freedoms Bill. The piece covers what datasets are (also covered in more depth by Ibrahim in another piece elsewhere in the Newsletter), what practical steps we should be taking, and finally calls for FOI Officers to get more involved in open data projects in their organisations.

There are also pieces in the Newsletter from Emily Goodhand, better known as @CopyrightGirl on Twitter, who wrote a couple of great guest posts here and here a few months ago, and Jonathan Baines, an Information Rights Specialist at Buckinghamshire County Council, who writes about the Environmental Information Regulations.

Is a reply within 15 days “as soon as possible”?

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.

Is there room for another blog on FOI?

There are quite a number of blogs about FOI now. You’ll find links to some of them at the side of this page. So what is it that I have to say that will be different?

Most blogs about this subject are written by journalists. Often they give a pretty balanced view of FOI – I particularly like Martin Rosenbaum’s blog for the BBC, Open Secrets. But what I think is missing is the view from the inside. When information is withheld, it’s always because the public authority is trying to hide something. Public authorities are always portrayed as monolithic entities – yet as any FOI Officer will tell you, there are diverse opinions about FOI and specific requests within their organisation. And while we hear lots of accusations that public authorities are ‘dodging’ FOI, we hear very little of the very real concerns of some public sector workers about the impact of FOI on their work. And when we do, it is portrayed as a resistance to change.

The Russell Report into the Climate Change Unit of the University of East Anglia back in July included an interesting quote from the FOI Officer of the University of East Anglia. He described his job as feeling “like the bullseye at the centre of the target”. It certainly can be difficult navigating a course between the expectations of requesters, the requirements of the law and the concerns, founded or otherwise of colleagues, superiors and politicians. But it does give us a unique view of FOI and its impact on our organisations. Is it delivering its original aims? Is the public sector changing? The view from within is up to now largely unheard, but is a valuable contribution to this debate.