EIR charges curbed by ICO

FOIMan reports on a move by the Information Commissioner to clamp down on charges for environmental information.

Wind turbine in countrysideA new decision from the Information Commissioner moves the regulator’s position on charges under the Environmental Information Regulations (EIR) on from the policy announced in 2016. If the decision stands, it means that public authorities will not be able to charge for environmental information if they wouldn’t be able to charge for it under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA).

In a decision issued to Folkestone and Hythe District Council the Commissioner  has ruled that a charge of £325 to access environmental information was not reasonable. In effect, the ICO’s decision sets out that it cannot be reasonable to charge for environmental information below the appropriate limit set out in the FOIA fees regulations. Although the fees regulations do not directly apply to EIR, the Commissioner’s view is that the appropriate limit (of £600 for central government and £450 for other public authorities) provides a useful starting point when considering charges under the regulations.

More generally, the ICO are keen to reduce inconsistencies in charging policies in relation to environmental information. In a blog post accompanying the decision, Gill Bull, the ICO’s Director of Freedom of Information states that authorities should avoid routinely charging for environmental information, and is unlikely to be sympathetic when charges are made for information falling beneath the appropriate limit. She links the decision to Parliament’s declaration of a ‘climate change emergency’, pointing out that it is more important than ever for people to be able to play a full and informed part in debate about the environment. This should not be hampered by financial barriers, she argues.

This decision emphasises the important relationship between access to information and the major issues that face society. The ICO will be updating their guidance later in the year to reflect this change in approach.

FOIMan’s FOI Inbox

FOIMan answers your questions in the latest issue of the Freedom of Information Journal.

I recently put out a call to practitioners for their FOI problems with a view to featuring them (and my solutions) in one of my articles for the Freedom of Information Journal. You can now read the results in what I hope will be the first of a semi-regular feature: FOIMan’s FOI Inbox.

Problems posed in the first of these articles are:

  • when can small numbers be refused as personal data (if you shouted out ‘five or less’ or similar just now, you can do three laps of the sportsfield – rounded up to five, of course – right now…go on, off you go *folds arms, raises eyebrows, P.E. teacher-style*)?
  • do public authorities have to provide an email address to which FOI requests can be addressed?
  • how do you work out whether information in the possession of contractors is held for FOI purposes, especially when many contractual relationships are so complex?

Thanks to Gillian, Sarah and Mark for contributing the questions this time around. If you’re an FOI Officer struggling with any FOI or EIR issues, please do get in touch with myself or the FOI Journal editor and I’ll try to answer your query in print in a future issue.

Upcoming events featuring FOIMan

FOIMan highlights some upcoming events he’ll be speaking at.

Freedom of Information in Practice: this Wednesday (17th April 2019) at 12.30pm I’ll be delivering a webinar for CILIP (the Library Association) which is open to anyone. We’ll be looking at the practical aspects of FOIA compliance: logging and tracking requests, training, establishing an internal network of helpers and so on. Details of how to book to attend can be found here on the CILIP website.

Effective Records and Information Management: I’ll be leading a day exploring the features of a records and information management programme for Understanding ModernGov on 24 April 2019. A programme and details of how to book can be found here on the Understanding ModernGov website.

Raiders of the Lost Archivist – the Quest for Compliance in the Netflix Era: join myself and Alison Drew as we discover the impossibility of escaping information governance, data protection, record management and freedom of information on a night in with the telly. If you’re attending the Information and Records Management Society (IRMS) conference at Celtic Manor between 19th and 21st May 2019, you’ll be able to hear what Bond, Indiana Jones, Bodyguard and a ton of sci-fi can tell us about the growing relevance of these issues in the modern world. You can find details of the IRMS conference and how to attend here.

Records Management and FOI: I’ll be making a return to the IRMS’s Public Sector Group on 12 July 2019 to discuss how records management does (and sometimes doesn’t) help with FOI compliance. IRMS members have priority for bookings. Details will be available in due course here on the Public Sector Group part of the IRMS website.

Complying with Data Subject Access Requests: a full-day course on handling subject access requests under data protection laws provided by Understanding ModernGov, and taking place on 17 July 2019. Full details here on the ModernGov website.

Watch out for details of more events as they are announced.

 

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.

Are Housing Associations subject to EIR?

FOIMan highlights an FTT decision which provides the latest word on accessing information from housing associations.

Despite governments undertaking to examine the addition of housing associations to the Freedom of Information Act’s (FOIA’s) coverage, it has yet to happen. The Information Commissioner is the latest to call for this change.

There has been debate though as to whether Housing Associations are subject to the Environmental Information Regulations (EIRs). Generally the Information Commissioner has decided not, but last year she put the cat amongst the proverbial pigeons with a decision that an East London housing association was subject due to its ‘special powers’. Lynn Wyeth wrote an excellent piece in the Freedom of Information Journal in the Autumn comparing the Commissioner’s decisions on this issue and seeking to explain why the decision in relation to Poplar Housing and Regeneration Community Association (Poplar HARCA) was different. In summary: it’s complicated.

Well, the FTT has now decided that perhaps it isn’t complicated after all: they’ve upheld Poplar HARCA’s appeal and have concluded that it is not subject to the EIRs. In the course of the appeal, the Commissioner in fact suggested that she’d got it wrong in an earlier case (Richmond – FER0700353), which explained the variation. The FTT agreed that the Commissioner had got it wrong, but in their view it was the Poplar decision that was incorrect. 

As with a lot of disputes over the coverage of the EIRs in the last few years, the case revolved around the Fish Legal case that was referred to the European Court of Justice in 2014. That case examined the definition of public authority at regulation 2(2)(c) of the EIRs and the underlying Directive. It concluded that to ‘carry out functions of public administration’, a body had to have been ‘entrusted with the performance of services under a legal regime’; the services had to be of public interest; and it had to have been vested with ‘special powers’ in order to provide those services.

In the Poplar case, the FTT found that Fish Legal had defined ‘legal regime’ as meaning that there had to be a national law entrusting the body with the performance of those services. This was where the ICO’s case fell down: the FTT could not identify such a law. Without the ‘narrow’ definition of a legal regime set down in Fish Legal, the FTT would have taken a different view – but effectively its hands were tied.

For now then, private housing associations will not be subject to FOI nor the EIRs. Until the government either chooses to extend FOI and the EIRs to them, or inadvertently entrusts them with performance of services under another national law. Or until there is a successful appeal to the Upper Tribunal – whichever of these is sooner.