Decisions Round-up: 8 - 19 May 2017

In this bumper edition, we consider why it's not always possible to anonymise statistical information and why evidence is crucial when deciding whether a request is vexatious or manifestly unreasonable.

And, with summer just around the corner, we also reinforce the importance of ensuring that authorities have FOI cover in place for staff holidays.


 Learning points:

  • Statistical information won't always be anonymous
    Where a request asks for personal data, it may be possible to anonymise the data so that it is suitable for release. However, particular care needs to be taken with sensitive personal data or data about very private matters (such as family circumstances). Authorities must consider the risk of identification, and with small numbers there may be a genuine risk - even with statistics.

    In Decision 073/2017, for example, we weren't satisfied that statistics about foster carers could be disclosed without identifying the carers concerned.


  • Authorities must provide full arguments when refusing a request
    Refusing a request means denying a person's right to access to information. Every refusal must therefore be very carefully considered, and the authority must be able to justify its position fully to the Commissioner. In Decision 072/2017, we weren't satisfied that the Council had done this when claiming a request was manifestly unreasonable under the EIRs.

    On the other hand, the authority in was able to provide clear evidence that a request for information was vexatious, which led to us upholding its conclusion.


  • Authorities: check your understanding of a request - it might prevent an appeal
    In Decision 065/2017, the requester asked for information about his recent job evaluation and his own personal circumstances. By interpreting his request too broadly, the authority ended up withholding information which the requester hadn't asked for. This was resolved during our investigation, but a decision against the authority could have been avoided.


  • It's almost summer - is your FOI staff cover in place?
    In several of the cases this week, authorities failed to respond in time. In Decision 066/2017, it was eight weeks before the requester received a response. Lack of staff cover during holiday periods was a feature in two of our cases. With summer just around the corner, this is a timely reminder to ensure appropriate cover is in place.


  • Searches for information must be thorough
    In Decision 067/2017, an internal investigation report covered by the request was only located after we made enquiries to a third party which revealed its existence. The searches carried out by the Council had failed to identify this information.


  • The individual circumstances of each case are important
    The exact circumstances of a case are always a key consideration. In Decision 068/2017, the request was for information about purchases made from a particular company. Section 18 of the FOI Act allows authorities to refuse to confirm or deny whether they hold information in certain, limited, circumstances - we agreed that this provision applied in this case.

    In most situations there will be little harm in revealing that an authority has purchased goods or services from a company, but that was not the case here because of the nature of the company's business.


  • We can't consider what information an authority should hold - but remember the duty to advise and assist
    When investigating appeals, we can only consider what an authority actually holds when it receives a request. We can't comment on whether the authority should have taken a particular action or what records it should have kept in relation to any action. (Decision 074/2017).

    However, there may be circumstances where it is helpful for the authority to explain what it does and doesn't record. An authority may fail to meet its duty to advise and assist if it doesn't explain why information isn't held in some circumstances. (Decision 069/2017).

Decisions issued:

  • Decision 062/2017 Mr A and Edinburgh City Council
    The Council was asked for information relating to burial records. We found that the Council failed to respond to Mr A's request for review within the FOI Act's timescales.


  • Decision 063/2017 Salmon and Trout Conservation Scotland and the Scottish Ministers
    The Ministers were asked about the control of sea lice on fish farms. We found that the Ministers failed to respond in time.


  • Decision 064/2017 Allan Nugent and City of Glasgow Council
    Mr Nugent asked for the list of taxi operators which had been submitted to the Council by a trade union, in connection with changes to the taxi tariff. The Council withheld the information, concluding it was sensitive personal data. We agreed with the Council, as the information identified individuals as members of a union.


  • Decision 065/2017 Lindsay Clark and the Scottish Fire and Rescue Service (SFRS)
    Mr Clark asked for information relating to his job evaluation. The SFRS originally withheld some of the information under the exemptions for commercial interests and confidentiality. During our investigation, the SFRS changed its position, deciding that the information was Mr Clark's own personal data. We accepted this. The SFRS has now provided Mr Clark with his personal information through the appropriate route (the Data Protection Act). 


  •  Decision 066/2017 Richie Reid and the Scottish Ministers
    The Ministers were asked about the decision to move the offshore boundary between England and Scotland further north, and why the current Scottish Government had not disputed this change. After investigation, we accepted that the Ministers did hold not any information falling within the scope of the request.


  •  Decision 067/2017 Paul Cargill and Perth and Kinross Council
    The Council was asked for information regarding an investigation into its Road Maintenance Partnership with Tayside Contracts. It disclosed some information and withheld the remainder. We found that some information was wrongly withheld and should be disclosed. We also found that the Council had initially failed to find all the information covered by the request.


  • Decision 068/2017 Alastair Tibbitt and the Chief Constable of the Police Service of Scotland
    Mr Tibbitt asked for information about purchases from Cellxion Ltd., a telecommunications service provider. Police Scotland refused to confirm or deny whether the information existed or was held by them (section 18). After investigation, we accepted that it would not be in the public interest for Police Scotland to reveal whether the information existed or was held, given the type, and limited range, of products offered by Cellxion.


  • Decision 069/2017 Alan Stewart and Argyll and Bute Council
    The Council was asked for the costs incurred in relation to a complaint made to the Commissioner for Ethical Standards about a named Councillor. The Council said it didn't hold the information. We accepted this, but found the Council failed to provide appropriate advice and assistance to the requester.


  • Decision 071/2017 John Brown and the Scottish Further and Higher Education Funding Council (SFC)
    The SFC was asked for the names of people interviewed in connection with a report into governance at Glasgow Clyde College. The SFC refused to disclose the information. We found the SFC had wrongly withheld the information and ordered its disclosure. 

  • Decision 072/2017 David Telford and North Ayrshire Council
    The Council was asked for information explaining data contained in planning documentation for a housing development in Fairlie. The Council considered the request under the EIRs, concluding that it was manifestly unreasonable. We didn't agree, finding that the Council had failed to demonstrate the request was manifestly unreasonable. We ordered it to issue a new review outcome.


  • Decision 073/2017 Lorna Anderson and Dundee City Council
    The Council was asked for statistics and related information on complaints made by, and de-registrations of, foster-carers. We accepted that the Council was correct to withhold some information as personal data. However, we also found that the Council should have confirmed that it didn't hold some of the information it had been asked for.


  • Decision 074/2017 Angus Pattison and East Dunbartonshire Council
    Mr Pattison asked for information about the Bears Way Cycle Route project. The Council disclosed information, but Mr Pattison believed the Council held more information than it had disclosed to him. After we investigated, we were satisfied that the Council had carried out appropriate searches and disclosed all the information it held.


Back to Top