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Staff Guidance

Freedom of Information Act: Guidance for Staff

Frequently Asked Questions: 


What is the Freedom of Information Act? 

The Freedom of Information Act 2000 (commonly abbreviated to FOIA or FOI) is legislation which gives any individual a right of access to recorded information held by public authorities; and places a duty on public authorities to be open and accountable to the public.  Universities are public authorities for the purposes of FOI.

 

What is an FOI request and how will I recognise one?

Any written request for information held by the University may be an FOI request.  

To be a valid request under the Act, a request does not need to:

- mention ‘FOI’ or ‘Freedom of Information’.  It only needs to ask for information (held by the University);  

- be sent to our dedicated foi@mmu.ac.uk email address.  It may be sent to any member of staff or any University email account; 

- give reasons for requesting the information (although sometimes this is given, eg research for a dissertation).

However, a valid request must:

- be in writing (eg by letter, email or twitter).  Verbal requests do not fall under the Act and don’t have to be answered;

- include a name (eg J Smith) and an address for the University’s reply (an email address is sufficient).  Note: whether the name and address appear genuine or not is not relevant to whether a request for information is a valid FOI request.

 

Who is responsible for FOI at Manchester Met?

All staff are responsible for complying with the Act.  Staff must follow the instructions provided by the Legal Department.  The Legal Department coordinates the University’s compliance with FOI, including issuing formal responses to FOI requests and administering the University’s FOI publication scheme.

 

What should I do if I receive a written request for information held by the University?

If you routinely provide certain types of information to students, staff or the general public, (eg, copies of the University’s prospectus, or information about courses or tuition fees), you can continue to do so as usual and do not need to refer to FOI in your response or notify the Legal Department.  

 

If you receive a request for information which mentions FOI or which asks for information you do not routinely provide in the course of your work, contact the Legal Department at: foi@mmu.ac.uk as soon as the request is received.

 

What do I have to do if the Legal Department contact me to ask for information for an FOI request?

  • Check the request quickly (FOI is subject to strict deadlines) and determine if you or your department holds all of the information requested.  Decide who the most appropriate person is to be responsible for identifying, retrieving and collating the data, and providing the information together with any further comments/contextual data, to the Legal Department for review and advice. 
  • If you do not hold all of the information or you think further colleagues/departments will need to be involved in answering the request, let the Legal Department know as soon as possible. [ideally, by responding and copying in those relevant colleagues so that they see the request ASAP and the Legal department are aware who needs to be involved]
  • If you have any concerns about identifying or retrieving the information requested, or about release of the information for any reason, discuss this with the Legal Department, who will provide advice and consider whether an exemption applies.

 

What if a request is not clear?

We can seek clarification from the requester to be able to identify the information required or to provide an appropriate response.  The time limit for responding to a request will be frozen until sufficient clarification is received.

 

How much time do we have to answer an FOI request?  Is it 20 working days?

Although the Act refers to ‘20 working days’, this  is the maximum time limit permitted.  The Act says: “a public authority must comply ... promptly and in any event not later than the twentieth working day following the date of receipt”.  The obligation to respond promptly means we should comply as soon as is reasonably practicable.  This will depend upon a number of factors, including the number of requests the University is dealing with at the time, and the complexity and volume of data involved.  

The time taken by the University to prepare a response includesthe following: notifying the Legal Department; formally logging and processing the request; identification of key staff/departments likely to hold relevant data; identification and retrieval of the information requested; collation and calculations required; consideration of relevant exemptions; provision of advice to staff; consultation with senior staff/other relevant individuals/organisations; and final drafting and approval of the response.  

For these reasons, timescales for staff to respond to the Legal Department will be short and should be answered as soon as possible.

 

What types of information do we have to supply?

The Act applies to ‘recorded information’.  This includes all information held by the University in permanent form: computer records, paper files, emails, and handwritten notes.  It does not include information which is known by staff but which is not yet recorded (for example, plans or proposals which have been discussed but not yet recorded or documented).

Personal data is normally exempt from disclosure under FOI as this is dealt with instead under the Data Protection Act 1998.  FOI usually applies only to (non-personal) University information.  If you are asked for any personal information (about identifiable staff, students or other individuals), and providing this information is not a regular part of your role, contact the Legal Department for assistance.

 

Do surveys/questionnaires count as FOI requests?

It depends: if the questions in the survey ask for existing recorded information held by the University, we should answer these questions under FOI.  However, there is no obligation under the Act to create new recorded information in response to an FOI request; or to give opinions or comments in response to a question.

 

Providing information is time-consuming and expensive.  Can we refuse to answer or charge a fee?

Under the FOI Fees Regulations, there is a cost limit for having to comply with a request.  If the time and cost involved in providing the information exceeds the cost limit, the University may either refuse to answer the request, or charge the appropriate fee.  The cost limit is currently £450 (representing 18 hours at £25 per hour).  

The University may only include the following activities when calculating the cost limit: 

- Determining whether the information is held

- Locating, retrieving, and extracting the information from a document containing it.

The University is not entitled to charge for providing records if the reason for the cost is due to poor records management.

If the University applies the cost limit exemption, it is then under a duty to advise the requester regarding ways of reducing the request.  

The University can charge for the cost of photocopying and postage for FOI requests.  However, most requests are received and responded to electronically, so that copying and postage costs are minimal.  

 

What if we do not want to release the information?

The Act provides the public with a general right of access to University information and we can only legitimately withhold information if an exemption specified by the Act applies.  If you have concerns about the release of information for any reason, contact the Legal Department, who will determine whether an exemption is relevant. 

 

Can we destroy information so we don’t have to release it under FOI?

No.  It is a criminal offence for any individual/member of staff to destroy, obscure or erase material (or instruct others to do so) following receipt of a valid FOI request.

However, it is important for the University to have effective record management procedures, and staff to follow these procedures so that information can be routinely destroyed at the appropriate times (when it is no longer needed or appropriate for the University to continue to hold information).  Effective records management is likely to help to reduce the burden of answering FOI requests, for example, supplying data for 1 year (instead of 10 years’ worth) because the relevant records are destroyed after 12 months, in accordance with our policy.

 

What if the information no longer exists?

The duty is to supply the information held by the University at the time of the request.  If information previously held has since been destroyed in accordance with our records management policy, we are under no obligation to supply it.  However, if you are unable to provide the information requested because some/all of the information has been accidentally lost or destroyed, you should report this to the Legal Department.

 

What if we can’t find the information?

Inability to find documents/information is not an acceptable response to a request.  Effective records management and filing systems are a vital part of the University’s ability to comply with FOI legislation.  It must be possible to identify and retrieve the information and supply a copy of that information promptly and no later than 20 working days.  

 

What about work held outside the University (eg, at my home or by another organisation)?  

Any work taken home, or held/stored on non-University systems and personal devices, is covered by the Act if it is University information, held for / on behalf of the University.  Geographical location is not a factor in deciding whether information is ‘held’ by the University.  Similarly, information held for the University by external organisations may have to be retrieved in order to provide copies in response to an FOI request.

 

What is the ‘Publication Scheme’ and how can it help to reduce the burden of FOI requests?

The Act requires the University to maintain an index to information that the University holds, which is intended to be made ‘routinely available’ to the public.  Manchester Met’s Publication Scheme is published on the University website here: http://www2.mmu.ac.uk/foi/scheme/

 

The more information the University publishes, the less information we are likely to have to provide in response to an FOI request.  This is because there are 2 exemptions under FOI relating to published information: 

- Information which is already published by the University is exempt from disclosure in response to an FOI request.  

- Information which is not yet published, but which is intended for future publication, is also exempt from disclosure in response to an FOI request.

Publishing information, therefore, gives the University greater control over when and how often information is published or released and removes the obligation to have to provide that information on demand within short timescales (on receipt of an FOI request).  If you frequently receive FOI requests and would like to routinely publish some or all of that information instead, please contact the Legal Department for advice.


What are the risks of non-compliance with FOI?

A breach of FOI is unlawful.  The University may breach the Act if the University, or its staff:

- fail to respond adequately to a request for information;

- fail to adopt the model publication scheme, or do not publish the correct information;

- deliberately destroy, hide or alter requested information, to prevent it being released.

The Information Commissioner’s Office is the independent body which regulates and upholds information rights in the UK.  It has the power to take action against organisations and individuals who fail to comply.  In respect of FOI, these powers include:

  • Investigating Complaints: The University will need to explain its decision and actions to the ICO, or to review the matter and correct any mistakes.  If the complaint is not resolved this way, the ICO may issue a decision notice. 
  • Decision Notices: The ICO publishes its decision notices, so if the ICO decides a complaint against the University is upheld or that the University’s response was inadequate or incorrect, this could result in reputational harm to the University.  The decision notice will tell us what we need to do to resolve the matter and this may be legally binding.  If the decision notice requires the University to take certain steps (such as provide withheld information) this must be done within 35 calendar days.  Failure to comply with a decision notice is contempt of court, punishable by a fine.
  • Practice Recommendations: these are not legally binding but are published and publicised and again, may result in reputational harm to the University.  If we fail to comply with good practice recommendations, we are likely to be in breach of the Act.
  • Enforcement Action: such as issuing an enforcement notice, if the University fails to publish in accordance with the publication scheme.    
  • Monitoring: The ICO can formally monitor organisations for a period of time in order to assess the University’s compliance, potentially with a view to taking further action.
  • Criminal prosecutions: This only applies where deliberate actions have been taken to prevent the release of information under FOI; or for failure to comply with a decision/enforcement/information notice.  However, individuals (University staff) may be personally prosecuted in addition to organisations.