Decisions Round-up: 24 to 28 August 2015

This week's Round-up shows that there can be such a thing as too much information when it comes to FOI.  We discuss a case where an authority was wrong to ask for more information from a requester, although we also found that the amount of information asked for meant that the cost of responding exceeded the FOI limit.

Key messages:

  • Each case is different
    It's important to understand that information of a particular type, such as advice, may be withheld in one case and disclosed in another. Whether information can be disclosed or not will depend on its content, and the impact of release. If an authority wants to withhold information, it must be able to show why disclosure of the information in question would cause harm, instead of relying on general arguments. It's also important to distinguish between information which is advice, based on personal opinion, and factual background information provided in support of that advice. Decision 130/2015 discusses a case where this didn't happen.


  • It's important to have robust procedures in place
    Receiving multiple requests from the same requester over a short period can be difficult, but having clear procedures in place should help to prevent any request being overlooked. Decision 131/2015 concerns a case where an authority failed to respond in time to a number of requests and requests for review, and where the correspondence with the requester was confusing, compounding the problem.


  • When to ask the requester for more information
    In Decision 134/2015, we found that an authority was wrong to tell the requester that it needed more information in order to respond to his request. It would have been helpful to have more details to narrow the range of information potentially covered by the request, but it was not impossible to identify the information without more details.

    Sometimes, though, it's important to try to help the requester to narrow their request, so that the cost of responding to it doesn't exceed the £600 limit under the FOI Act.


  • Requesters: your reasons for asking for personal data must be clear
    Personal data can only be given out under the FOI Act when certain conditions in the Data Protection Act 1998 are met. Usually, a key point is whether the person asking for the information can show why they need it. If there is no clear reason, then the personal information can't be disclosed. In Decision 132/2015, the requester did not show why they needed the detailed personal information they had asked for.


  • Make your requests as specific as possible
    A broad request may capture more information, but it may also cost more to respond to. In Decision 134/2015, we found that the cost of responding to a broad request would be greater than the £600 cost permitted under the FOI Act. If the requester had been more specific, this could have been avoided. Our tips for requesters have advice on narrowing your request.

Decisions issued:

  • Decision 129/2015 Alan Johnston and Scottish Fire and Rescue Service
    Mr Johnston asked for information about promotions within the Fire Service. We found that the Fire Service failed to respond to his request and review within the FOI Act's timescales.


  • Decision 130/2015 Animal Concern and the Scottish Ministers
    Animal Concern asked for copies of all communications between Marine Scotland and Scottish Government Ministers regarding sea lice infestations at marine salmon farms and the effect of infestations on wild salmonids. The Ministers withheld all information, arguing that it was not in the public interest to disclose information from these internal communications.

    We accepted that some information should be withheld, because disclosure of some views and opinions could harm the Government's decision-making process by inhibiting internal discussion. However, we did not accept that this would apply to all the withheld information, especially factual background information in some documents.


  • Decision 131/2015 Mr Y and Forth Valley NHS Board
    Mr Y made four separate requests for the accident and incident forms completed by healthcare staff for each week over a four week period. We found that NHS Forth Valley failed to respond to his requests and review within the FOI Act's timescales, and had failed to demonstrate that it had a robust procedure for dealing with multiple requests from the same person.


  • Decision 132/2015 Mr N and New College Lanarkshire
    Mr N asked for an investigation into concerns he had raised with the College in 2012 regarding a member of staff. We agreed with the College that the information was personal data which was exempt from disclosure. Mr N may have had an interest in the disciplinary process of the College and whether that process had been conducted fairly, but we did not accept that this was enough to give him a legitimate interest in receiving this personal data.


  • Decision 133/2015 Mr K and the Scottish Prison Service (SPS)
    Mr K asked for information about procedures for searching prisoners at external work placements. The SPS provided some information and told Mr K that it did not hold the rest. After an investigation, we accepted this.


  • Decision 134/2015 Andrew Hamilton and the University of Edinburgh
    Mr Hamilton asked for information which would show whether two people had attended or completed certain courses. The University stated that it did not hold any information about one of the individuals. In relation to the other person, it told Mr Hamilton that it required more details from him to allow it to identify the information, and that the cost of providing information would be excessive.

    We didn't accept that the University required more details from Mr Hamilton in order to identify information covered by his request, although his request covered a large number of courses. We agreed that the cost of complying with his request would be more than £600, so the University was not required to respond.

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