Decisions Round-up: 05 - 09 June 2017

Just because an authority has standard fees for some of its services doesn't mean that they can charge these when a requester wants to access information. This week we had to remind an authority that access to information has its own feeing system, which overrides these standard fees. We also answer the questions "what if information could be misinterpreted?" and "what if the requester doesn't understand the information?". There are also tips for authorities on when to give advice and assistance, and clarifying requests.

Lastly, we explain how we resolved 16 cases this month without the need for a formal Decision Notice


Learning points:

  • Avoid flat fees for environmental information
    Authorities are allowed to charge for environmental information, but can't charge more than the actual cost of providing the information. In Decision 089/2017, we found that an authority was wrong to charge a standard fee of £50 for a single plan from a planning application, when the cost of providing the information was much less than that. Guidance on charging fees for environmental information can be found on our website.


  • What if information could be misinterpreted?
    We regularly see cases where the authority has decided not to disclose information in case it is misinterpreted by the public (e.g. Decision 088/2017). This is not a reason to withhold information. Authorities can choose to provide additional explanation when disclosing information, to reduce this risk - but in the end, it's up to the person receiving the information to draw their own conclusions.

    Similarly, authorities shouldn't make assumptions that a requester won't be able to understand the information covered by their request - we discuss this point in Decision 087/2017.


  • Be sure what information is requested
    By checking at an early stage what information the requester wants, authorities can avoid delays and complications from wrongly interpreting the request. In Decision 090/2017, the requester was seeking their own personal data, but the request was interpreted much more widely and exemptions were applied. Clarifying with the requester what they wanted would have avoided the appeal.


  • Advice and assistance may be needed at all stages
    Authorities should be proactive in providing advice and assistance to requesters, not just when the request is first made, but also at review. Authorities may need to explain why they don't hold information, if it will help the requester understand the response. In Decision 086/2017, the requester mistakenly thought that the authority had taken certain action and, as a result, couldn't understand why the authority told him it didn't hold any information. The authority should have explained why it didn't hold the information at an early stage.


Decisions issued:

  • Decision 086/2017 Angus Files and Argyll and Bute Council
    Mr Files asked about the costs associated with a complaint made to the Commissioner for Ethical Standards in Public Life in Scotland. The Council said it did not hold any information. After investigation, we accepted this, but found that the Council had failed to provide reasonable advice and assistance.


  • Decision 087/2017 Mr A and University of Strathclyde
    The University was asked for information about semen samples. It responded that it did not hold any information, explaining that the questions in the request were complex. We accepted that the University did not hold any recorded information which was covered by the request, and had provided reasonable advice and assistance.


  • Decision 088/2017 Chris Marshall and Police Scotland
    The Police refused to provide the number of Recorded Police Warnings (RPWs) issued for cannabis possession since the RPW scheme began. We did not accept that this information was exempt for the reasons given by the Police, and ordered disclosure.


  • Decision 089/2017 Q and Aberdeen City Council
    The Council was asked for a plan from a planning application. It charged £50 for this information. We found that the Council was not entitled to charge more than it would cost to provide the information.


  • Decision 090/2017 Derek Jackson and the Scottish Fire and Rescue Service (SFRS)
    The SFRS was asked for information about a job evaluation. It withheld some information under the exemptions for commercial interests and confidentiality
    During our investigation, the SFRS accepted that these exemptions were wrongly applied. We found that the information was Mr Jackson's own personal data and exempt from FOI disclosure for that reason.


Resolved cases

We also resolved 16 cases in May without the need for a formal decision after the requesters chose to withdraw their appeals.

  • In eight cases, the requesters received some or all of the information which had been withheld. Most of these appeals could have been avoided if the information had been disclosed on request. They included:    
    • a case where the authority accepted that similar information had been published or provided by other authorities;
    • a case where the requester agreed to accept a total figure, rather than a detailed breakdown of costs;
    • a case where the requester received the information and withdrew their appeal after being assured that we would record the authority's failure to respond in time.
  • One requester withdrew after our investigation showed that there was no more information to be provided.
  • In three cases, we explained to the requesters why we agreed that the information should not be disclosed, and provided details of similar decisions.
  • Similarly, in another cAse, we explained that a previous decision had accepted that certain information should be withheld, and told the requester that some relevant information was already available. After receiving confirmation that the published information was accurate, the requester withdrew.
  • A requester withdrew an appeal for a "failure to respond" decision after receiving a late review response from the authority.
  • Another requester withdrew when we explained that we aren't able to investigate whether information held by an authority is accurate.
  • In one case, the requester decided to make a new, narrower request to reduce the authority's costs to below the £600 limit.
  • A requester withdrew after we explained that we were unable to consider the point they were concerned about, because they hadn't mentioned it in their request for review

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