Guidance Note 1: Differences in Access-to-Information Legislation

Each piece of legislation provides an individual with a right of access to recorded information only (e.g. information that exists in hard copy format, electronically, photographs, CCTV etc). This information must be held by the University or on behalf of the University. The information should be provided to the individual unless a specific, limited exemption/exception applies.

How the different pieces of legislation overlap

When dealing with a request, the nature of the requested information needs to be considered carefully.

All recorded information is covered by the Freedom of Information Act, because there are specific exemptions that stipulate how certain types of information must be protected or released. For example there is an exemption (s40) that describes how personal information relating to an individual should not be released, where doing so would breach any of the Data Protection principles or cause unnecessary harm or distress to an individual.

Generally, if there is no harm to be caused by disclosing the information, there is no need to refer to the legislation being used to disclose it, although special care needs to be taken when releasing personal information about an individual. See Guidance Note 2: The Interaction between the Freedom of Information Act and the Data Protection Act.

The table below provides useful comparisons between the Freedom of Information Act 2000, the Environmental Information Regulations and the Data Protection Act 1998.

Piece of Legislation

Freedom of Information Act 2000 (FOIA)

Environmental Information Regulations (EIR)

Data Protection Act 1998 (DPA)

When did the legislation become the law, and is it purely UK law?

Fully into force on 1 January 2005.

UK legislation, but other countries have similar access to information laws.

Fully into force on 1 January 2005.

EU Directive; all countries in EU must have legislation that complies with this directive.

Fully into force 2001, although modified slightly by FOI to include unstructured personal data.

UK legislation, but other countries have similar laws.

Who must comply?

Government, and all Public Authorities (e.g. police forces, NHS, councils, universities, colleges and schools) plus their ‘wholly-owned’ subsidiary companies.

All public authorities, including those that must comply with the FOI Act plus other organisations that perform public administrative functions, including some private companies and Public Private Partnerships, such as those dealing with waste, water, energy and transport.

All UK organisations that process personal data.

What information does it cover?

All ‘recorded’ information held by the University, or held by someone else on our behalf – subject to exemptions.

Environmental Information’ that is recorded and held by the University, or held by someone else on our behalf – subject to exceptions.

Personal data relating to a specific individual (e.g. member of staff/student) – subject to exemptions.

What does the University have to do?

1) proactively publish information about our business and services, via a Publication Scheme.

2) respond to information requests

1) make environmental information available by electronic means, (can use the Publication Scheme).

2) respond to information requests

process personal data according to the eight data protection principles, which includes providing individuals with access to their own personal data (known as Subject Access Requests).

Who can request information?

Anyone, anywhere in the world can make a request for information.

Anyone, anywhere in the world can request environmental information.

 

Anyone, anywhere in the world can request access to information about themselves.

How can they make that request?

The request must be made in writing (includes emails, fax etc).

The request can be made by any reasonable means of communication (includes telephone calls).

 

The request must be made in writing (includes emails, fax etc).

Can the University ask the applicant for proof of identity or ask why they want the information?

No, the applicant needs only to give a name and address for correspondence, but in most cases the identity of the applicant is irrelevant. There is no obligation on the applicant to tell us why they want the information.

Yes, the University needs proof of identity before it can process a Subject Access Request, however, the University does not need to know why the applicant wants the information.

How long does the University have to respond?

The University has a duty to confirm or deny the existence of the information, and to communicate the information, to the applicant within 20 working days.

The University has a duty to confirm or deny the existence of the information, and to communicate the information to the applicant, within 40 calendar days.

How specific does the request have to be?

The request must enable the University to be able to locate the information requested. If this is not possible the University can ask the applicant to provide further clarification, and does not have to respond until it has received the additional information it requires to handle the request.

Must copies of original documents be provided?

The obligation is to provide information, subject to exemptions/exceptions. Where possible, the University should provide the information in the manner requested. Often it may be easier to provide copies, rather than summaries of the information. The applicant may also opt to view the information in person.

Yes. Copies of original documents must be provided, unless a specific exemption applies, or the individual has agreed to another method of receiving the information (e.g. viewing it in person)

Are there any exemptions from the obligation to provide information?

Yes. There are exemptions set out in the Act. Some are absolute, but others will require a test of prejudice, and consideration of the public interest. These are likely to apply on a case-by-case basis.

Advice should be sought from the FOI & Records Manager before attempting to withhold information.

Yes, as in FOI there are ‘exceptions to the obligation to provide environmental information. However, ALL of these require a public interest test, and it is much more likely that the balance will lie in favour of disclosure.

Advice should be sought from the FOI & Records Manager before attempting to withhold information.

 

There are limited exemptions from providing individuals with copies of their own personal data. (e.g. information which also relates to a third party, or management forecasting). Advice should be sought from the Data Protection Officer before attempting to withhold information.

Is there a limit to the amount of information that can be requested?

Yes. There is a limit to the searching which the University is expected to do to process a request. The appropriate limit is £450, which equates to 2 ½ days work. The University may agree to carry out further searches for a reasonable fee.

No. There is no upper limit for the amount of environmental information that can be requested. The University may have to extend the time needed to respond (maximum 40 working days), and can apply reasonable charges.

No. The applicant may ask for ‘all’ the information in relation to themselves, and this could include correspondence relating to them (e.g. emails).

Can the University charge a fee?

Publication Scheme

Reasonable charging regimes can be applied to information described in the Publication Scheme, and any pre-existing charging procedures for information remain unchanged. A schedule of such charges must be produced.

 

Information requests

Yes, but only for disbursements. The cost of locating and retrieving information is not chargeable up to £450 (2 ½ days work).

Information will generally be free of charge, and the University will only charge disbursements when a large volume of information has been requested, and disbursement costs exceed £10.

Publication Scheme

Reasonable charging regimes can be applied to Environmental information described in the Publication Scheme, and any pre-existing charging procedures for such information remain unchanged.

A schedule of such charges must be produced.

Information requests

Yes. Reasonable charges can be applied, according to the cost of producing the information, and any disbursement charges.

Information will generally be free of charge, and the University will only charge disbursements when a large volume of information has been requested, and disbursements exceed £10 (in accordance with FOI).

Subject Access Requests

A standard fee of £10 can be charged

The University will apply this charge at its discretion depending on the volume and complexity of the request.

When is the fee payable?

If the University wishes to charge a fee, a Fees Notice is issued to the applicant. The request is not processed until payment has been received. Generally, the applicant has 60 working days to pay the fee, after which the University will assume the applicant no longer wants the information, and the request is considered to be closed.

 

Research Questionnaires

Staff at the University often receive research questionnaires via email and are unsure if it should be treated as a Fredom of Information request. If the questionnaire is seeking “recorded information” which already exists then strictly speaking we should supply it. If it is asking questions about unrecorded information (such as opinions, value judgements on statements etc) then it will not be necessary to reply under FOI legislation.