Further Guidance on the Freedom of Information Act 2000
1. What is Freedom of Information?
The Freedom of Information Act 2000 gives the public the right of access to all recorded information held by all public authorities. Subject to certain exemptions, any person who makes a request to the University for information, must be informed, within 20 days whether the University holds that information and if so that information must be supplied (subject to any exemptions).
The Freedom of Information Act complements the Data Protection Act 1998, which gives individuals access to personal information held about them by the University.
The University may decide that some information it holds could be regarded as exempt information under the Act. There are 23 exemptions under the Act, some exemptions where the public interest test applies, and others which are absolute exemptions. Further guidance on these exemptions can be found in section 4 of this guidance note.
2. How does it affect me?
The Freedom of Information Act requires the University to offer advice and assistance to anyone wanting to make a request for information. This means that you need to know what the general points of the Act are and how to give advice when asked. The type of assistance you may be asked to provide could include:
- guiding the person making the requests to the University’s publication scheme (see 2 i) below) and advising them on its content
- explaining the procedure for making a request for information (see 2 ii below)
- offering further advice and assistance.
i) The Publication Scheme
The University is required under the Act to maintain a publication scheme, which is a record of all the University’s routinely published information. This publication scheme is a guide to the documents, policies and procedures which the University publishes either on the web or in paper format, together with any fee payable for that information.
The University’s publication scheme is accessible from the main University home page (www.bangor.ac.uk ), or is available in hard copy format in the University libraries. The online version has links, where possible, straight to the information on the University’s website but you need to be aware that not everyone will have access to the internet and you may be asked to print out information in response to a request.
There is an expectation that the information contained in the publication scheme will continue to be updated in response to the types of information routinely requested.
ii) Requests for Information
Individuals and companies anywhere in the world are allowed under the Freedom of Information Act to ask whether the information they require is held by the University. If the University has this information then the person making the request has the right:
- to be told that the information exists;
- to have that information communicated to them (in the manner they have requested where reasonable).
The request must be in writing (although this can include faxes, e-mails and text messages) and must include the person’s name and address (e-mail or postal) and a description of the information required. Be aware that we are not allowed to ask the person making the request why they want the information.
Requests do not have to refer to the Freedom of Information Act at all.
The University has a maximum of 20 working days in which to respond from the day after receipt of the request, and any request which involves less than 2½ days searching or would cost less than £450 will be free of charge. Should the request go over the prescribed limit of £450 the University could decide to refuse the request, could offer advice and assistance to the enquirer in order that any resubmitted request comes under the limit, or could decide to make a charge for the information. The University reserves the right to charge an appropriate fee for dealing with a specific request for information not listed in the publication scheme in accordance with the Act.
3. How should I respond?
For requests that are routine and have always formed part of your school/department’s work – for example sending out prospectuses, brochures or module/course information - you should respond in the usual way and provide the information.
For requests which are not routine, ask for information which the school/department may not have been asked for before, are too general in their nature, ask for sensitive or potentially confidential information, or cite the Act you should send the request to the Head of Governance and Compliance who is the staff member responsible for the University’s freedom of information compliance. All requests will be logged and tracked to ensure compliance with the requirements of the Act:
Head of Governance and Compliance
Governance and Compliance Office
Prifysgol Bangor University
College Road LL57 2DG
Tel (01248) 382413
It is important that you ask for further guidance if you are unsure whether your request should be forwarded or not.
4. What are the exemptions?
There are 23 exemptions under the Act, some exemptions where a public interest test applies, and others which are absolute exemptions. The key exemptions for the University are shown below. Consideration of any exemptions will be made by the Head of Governance and Compliance in the first instance and will be overseen by the Director of Corporate Services.
S.21 – Information accessible by other means
For example when the information is already in the publication scheme, or is available from a third party (although the University would have a duty to assist the person making the request to obtain this information from the third party).
S.22 – Information intended for future publication*
Information held by the University where there is a genuine intention to publish at a later date.
S.36 - Effective Conduct of Public Affairs*
If disclosure of information would inhibit or would be likely to inhibit the free and frank provision of advice or exchange of views, or in any way prejudice the effective conduct of public affairs.
S.38 – Health and safety*
For example if disclosure of certain information would endanger the physical or mental health, or the safety of any individual.
S.40 – Personal information
If the information requested contains personal details about the person requesting the information it should be dealt with as a subject access request under the Data Protection Act 1998. If the information is about a third party this information is exempt if the disclosure would breach any of the principles of the Data Protection Act.
S.41 – Information provided in confidence
If disclosure of any information would mean that the provider or third party could take the University to court then the information is exempt. This exemption does not apply to information generated by the University.
S.42 – Legal Professional Privilege*
If the University has obtained legal advice then this advice is protected by this exemption.
S.43 – Commercial interests*
If the release of the information is likely to prejudice the commercial interests of the University, or if the information is a trade secret then this information is exempt.
S.44 - Disclosure is prohibited by law
If disclosure is prohibited by another Act, or would constitute contempt of court then the information is exempt.
* Public interest test applies
5. What about complaints?
The person making the request may complain to the University if they felt that their request for information was not dealt with appropriately, if the University failed to respond within the 20 working days deadline or if they felt that the University had failed in its duty to provide them with advice and assistance. The complaint will be dealt with via the University’s complaints procedures in the first instance.
The person making the request may also take the matter up with the Information Commissioner who is the regulatory authority for the Act and has powers of enforcement.
The Information Commissioner
6. Records management good practice
Make your records easy to understand by a third party!
The implementation of the Freedom of Information Act means that most of the University’s recorded information is now readily accessibly either via freedom of information or data protection legislation. Staff must be aware of this when creating records. Good records are accurate, factual, clear and up to date and staff must refrain from including personal opinions that they would be unable to back up with fact.
The Head of Governance and Compliance is available to provide advice to all members of staff on good records management practice. The aim is to ensure that all recorded information is created, maintained, controlled and disposed of in a way that facilitates it's most efficient and effective use. Advice can be given on, for example:
- All aspects of records-keeping.
- Confidential destruction of records when they come to the end of their life cycle.
- Identification of materials for eventual transfer to the Records Centre.
- Identification and transfer of archival material to the archive for permanent preservation.
Guidance is given below on specific aspects of good record keeping:
Committee Agendas and Papers
Best practice suggests that agendas for committees should be divided into two sections – unreserved business and reserved business (which would include sensitive information such as personal information).
Minutes and reports
Staff should assume when writing committee minutes and reports that they may be available to an individual making a subject access request unless it is clear that some or all of the content falls within exemptions. However, this aspect will require careful consideration as whilst a tabled paper for a committee may be covered by an exemption reference to that paper in the minutes of the committee may not.
Staff should take particular care when composing e-mails as although a less formal style of writing is usually adopted e-mails are included in the definition of information under the Act, and could therefore be disclosed to an individual making a subject access request.