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Round-up iconDecisions Round-up: 27 to 31 January 2020

Public authorities should be alert to any obstacles or barriers that might prevent people making effective use of their FOI rights. Below we highlight the importance of ensuring that FOI rights are respected in all circumstances: even where other aspects of communications with an individual have proved challenging. We also feature cases which focus on the importance of effective searches, and the benefits of providing information as soon as possible, whenever possible.

Learning points:

 

  • Authorities should get their searches right first time
    FOI gives people a right to the information held by public authorities. If that right is to be met, it's important that public authorities start by carrying out searches which are likely to result in all information covered by the request being found. In two cases this week (Decisions 008/2020 and 010/2020), the authority didn't find all the information it held until after our investigation had started. This led to unnecessary and avoidable delays to the requester receiving information.

 

  • Restrictions on communication with an authority shouldn't get in the way of FOI
    Public authorities may occasionally restrict a person's communications with it to particular channels and/or points of contact. This can happen, for example, if a particular pattern of behaviour leads to an organisation implementing its Unacceptable Actions Policy. If it does this, however, it must ensure that it still responds to any information requests and requests for review made by that individual. FOI requests will still be able to be made using any recorded route, to any point within the authority (see Decision 012/2020).

 

  • If information is on its way to a public register, it's unlikely there will be good reasons for withholding it
    Once a document has been sent to an external body for publication (e.g. in the Land Register), it will be difficult to argue that there are good reasons for it remaining private, even if the document hasn't yet been published (and isn't reasonably accessible to the public without a request being made). That was the situation in Decision 013/2020, where the public authority made the sensible decision - albeit during our investigation - just to give the information to the requester.

Decisions issued:

 

  • Decision 008/2020 University of Glasgow
    The University was asked for information concerning OSCE (Objective Structured Clinical Examination) collusion and fairness. The University initially withheld the information. We found that the University had failed to identify and disclose all of the information it held (but didn't require any action, given that all of the information was disclosed during our investigation).

 

  • Decision 009/2020, 010/2020 and 011/2020 Scottish Ministers
    These three decisions all concern requests made to the Ministers for internal communications relating to an intervention carried out by the Scottish Information Commissioner into their handling of information requests. For some of the information, the Ministers claimed disclosure would harm the effective conduct of public affairs (which we accepted for most of this information - any information wrongly withheld was disclosed during the investigation). For other requests, the Ministers claimed they didn't hold the information: we accepted this for one request, but information was identified and disclosed during the investigation for the other.

 

  • Decision 012/2020 Angus Council
    The Council was asked about the number of fixed penalty notices issued for dog fouling. The Council didn't respond until asked for a review, when it provided the requester with information and an explanation of its handling of the request and the surrounding circumstances. The requester complained about the Council's handling of the request, also claiming that the information provided was incomplete and unclear. The Commissioner was satisfied that the Council had provided the information requested, but found shortcomings in its handling of the request due to the way it had applied its Unacceptable Actions Policy to the FOI request.

 

  • Decision 013/2020 Lanarkshire Health Board (NHS Lanarkshire)
    NHS Lanarkshire was asked for the price achieved from the sale of two hospital sites. Responding to the request, NHS Lanarkshire withheld the information on the basis that disclosure was likely to harm commercial interests. During our investigation, it stopped claiming this exemption and disclosed the information to the requester. We found that NHS Lanarkshire should have provided the information to the requester at the time of his request.

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