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Filing cabinet with papers flying outDecisions Round-up: 15 April to 3 May 2013

 This Round-up covers the 14 decisions we issued over the last three weeks.  We've been having technical problems with our website, which is why we have not been publishing the Round-up weekly, but we will now return to publishing every Friday. 

Key messages:

  • Focus your requests for information

When making an information request, focussing your request on the specific information of most value to you can help you get the information you need. Decision 063/2013 concerned a very wide-ranging request for environmental information. The disruption that would be caused to the authority by providing a response meant that the request was "manifestly unreasonable" in terms of the EIRs.

  • Providing context can mean better FOI

Whether you're a requester seeking information or an authority preparing a response, providing clear and helpful contextual information often makes for more effective FOI. In Decision 065/2013, the authority didn't hold relevant information, but didn't explain the reasons for this. If staff had taken the opportunity to explain why the information was not held, the subsequent appeal may have been avoided.

  • Are all staff are briefed on FOI?

Staff across an organisation should be fully aware of their duties under FOI and the EIRs, and able to quickly identify requests. The technical appeal dealt with in Decision 066/2013 could have been avoided if departmental staff had recognised the information request, and acted accordingly.

  • Information may not be held in the manner you expect

When you ask for information, remember it may not be held as you expect it to be. This could have an impact on how easy it is to locate and retrieve what you have asked for. In turn this might have a bearing on how much it will cost the authority to provide it to you.

  • You must respond to FOI requests

Failing to respond to requests, or requests for review can lead to avoidable additional work for the authority in the long run as it may have to respond to a request for review and investigation by the Commissioner Above all, it leads to delays for applicants. Many authorities are developing good practice in tracking and monitoring tools, and robust procedures which help them meet their duty to respond within statutory timescales.

  • FOI requests may not be immediately obvious

Remember that an applicant may present their request for information as part of a wider correspondence covering other matters e.g. complaints. Similarly, an authority's complaint or other contact forms might be used by someone to make a request. All the law requires is that their request is in writing, so it's likely such requests will be valid. Ensure your staff are aware that they need to be vigilant to request coming to the authority in this way. Failure to spot a request can cause timescales to be missed, leading to avoidable requests for review and appeals to the Commissioner.

Decisions:

Zurich Insurance requested a wide range of information from the Council relating to flooding in a specified area. The Commissioner agreed with the Council's view that the request was "manifestly unreasonable" in terms of regulation 10(4)(b) of the EIRs. In coming to this decision she considered the disproportionate level of disruption that responding to the request would have for the Council.

  • Decision 064/2013 - Global Alliance Against Industrial Aquaculture (GAAIA) and the Scottish Ministers

GAAIA requested information about seals killed by salmon farmers over a given period. Following investigation, the Commissioner was satisfied that no information was held which fell within the scope of the request.

  • Decision 065/2013 - Mr Julian Calvert and Strathclyde Partnership for Transport (SPT)

SPT provided a small amount of information in response to Mr Calvert's request, and informed him that the remainder was not held. We found that the SPT was correct to conclude that no further information was held.

  • Decision 066/2013 - Firrhill Community Council and the City of Edinburgh Council

  • Decision 067/2013 - Larbert, Stenhousemuir and Torwood Community Council and the Scottish Ministers

Two technical decision which address failures to respond within FOI timescales.

These two decisions concerned requests for information relating to specific communications held by the Service. In the first case, we found that the Service did not hold the requested information, as it had previously been destroyed in line with the Service's records management policy.

In the second case, we found that Service had wrongly informed Mr Cordiner that it did not hold relevant information. However, we also found that this information was exempt from release under FOI as it was Mr Cordiner's own personal data. The route for access to an individual's own personal data is through the Data Protection Act 1998, rather than under FOI.

Mr Forbes asked for the number and nature of complaints made against a named solicitor, but the SLCC refused to confirm or deny it held any information. The SLCC argued that, if it did hold any relevant information, release would impact on its ability to investigate complaints impartially and fairly. For example, not all complaints are well founded, and the SLCC needs to be able to consider the merit of any complaint without interference. Mr Forbes argued that there was a public interest in the information, as the solicitor received public funds. The Commissioner agreed that a public interest did exist, but it was outweighed by the public interest in allowing SLCC to conduct its functions, and she agreed that the authority was entitled to refuse to confirm or deny if it held any information.

  • Decision 071/2013 - Mr Russell Findlay and the Chief Constable of the Police Service of Scotland

Mr Findlay requested specific details in relation to unsolved murders in the Strathclyde area. The police applied exemptions in relation to the initial request, then changed their position on review, informing Mr Findlay that they did not hold the requested information. We found that, while the police did hold the information, it fell within the scope of the FOI exemption relating to investigations. We went on to conclude that the public interest favoured the non-disclosure of the information.

A further technical decision which finds that Ministers failed to respond to within FOI timescales.

  • Decision 073/2013 - Mrs Carmela Stornaiuolo and City of Edinburgh Council (the Council)

Mrs Stornaiuolo asked for a range of information relating to works carried out on a property under a statutory notice. The Council gave her some information, and then some more when she asked for a review. When Mrs Stornaiuolo appealed to the Commissioner, we asked the Council for details of the searches it had undertaken. During the investigation the Council found more information which was covered by the request, and this was provided. The Commissioner found that Council hadn't given the applicant everything it held when she asked for it, but that it had done so by the time the decision was issued. The Council has also failed to meet statutory timescales for responding.

Mr V requested copies of all information, including updates, that the Council has given to sentencers and the Parole Board about the provision of community based programmes for sex offenders. The Council did not provide reports or updates in the way Mr V envisaged, but it did locate information in individual social work reports that might be relevant. As the information was held in thousands of individual files, the cost of locating and retrieving the information would mean search files individually and would significantly exceed the £600 limit. Given the costs involved it was difficult to identify what useful information could be provided within the cost limit.

Mr Gordon asked Ministers for information relating to the Govanhill Baths Community Trust in November 2012, but the Minsters didn't respond. Nor did they respond to Mr Gordon's request for a review. When Mr Gordon appeals to the Commissioner, Ministers informed our investigators that they did intend to respond -but at the time of the decision they still hadn't done so. The Commissioner ordered Ministers to respond to Mr Gordon's request for review by 6 June 2013.

Mr W asked the SPS for a range of information relating to maintenance work undertaken at Shotts Prison on a specific day. SPS did not respond on time - Mr W's request was made on a Prisoner Complaint Form and staff did not recognise it was a FOI request. However when Mr W asked for a review, he was provided with some of the information, with some not being held by the SPS (the work was carried out by contractors). Having reviewed the searches which SPS undertook, the Commissioner accepted that all the relevant information had been identified and provided to Mr W. She accepted the SPS intended to ensure staff were aware that all complaints and requests may include FOI requests - but she still found that it hadn't met statutory timescales.

 

 

 

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