Decisions Round-up: 24 - 28 July 2017

In one in five of the appeals made to the Commissioner last year the requester didn't believe the authority had disclosed all the information it held. These can be time-consuming appeals, both for the Commissioner and for the authority, as we need to determine, on balance of probabilities, what information the authority holds. We'll look at the scope, quality, thoroughness and results of the searches carried out by the authority, and we'll often ask authorities to carry out new searches - sometimes with us in the room. Three of this week's decisions look at problems with searches.


Learning points:


  • Authorities should know what information they hold before responding
    Authorities can't respond to a request unless they know what, if any, information they hold. The FOI Act makes it clear that you can't apply an exemption to information you don't hold. Decision 115/2017 looks at a case where, despite not holding any information, the authority told the requester that they had already published the information and that other information would be published at a future date.


  • Searches must be thorough…
    It's disappointing how often public authorities find "new" information only after an appeal has been made to us. If proper searches are carried out at the start, it will often prevent an appeal - and can also build trust between the requester and authority. Decision 114/2017 is an example of this.


  • ...or the Commissioner will take action
    Part of our role is to decide, on the balance of probabilities, whether an authority has found all of the information it holds. In Decision 111/2017, despite the authority telling us that it had carried out thorough searches, more information kept coming to light during the investigation. There were also gaps in the information which didn't make sense. The decision therefore ordered the authority to carry out more searches.


Decisions issued:


  • Decision 111/2017 Martin Williams and Police Scotland
    This involved Police Scotland's investigation into allegations about illegalities during the postal ballot tallies in the 2014 Scottish independence referendum. Despite repeated assurances from Police Scotland that they had carried out thorough searches for the information covered by the request, we believed, on balance, that more information was held. The decision therefore requires Police Scotland to carry out additional searches.


  • Decision 113/2017 Helen McArdle and NHS Grampian
    This case looks at the failure by NHS Grampian to respond to a request - or subsequent request for review - about significant adverse events in maternity units. The FOI Act gives public authorities up to 20 working days to respond. In this case, more than six months after making the request, Ms McArdle had still not received a response. The decision requires NHS Grampian to respond.


  • Decision 114/2017 Angus Pattison and East Dunbartonshire Council (the Council)
    Mr Pattison asked the Council about petitions it had received in relation to the Bears Way cycle route project. During the investigation, it became clear that the Council held more information. It disclosed it to Mr Pattison. We were satisfied that, by the end of the investigation, all of the information had been found.


  • Decision 115/2017 Ms X and the Scottish Ministers
    The Ministers were asked for details of meetings between the Scottish Government and Russian state officials. Despite not holding any recorded information about the meetings, the Ministers told Ms X that the information she was looking for was otherwise accessible to her (section 25) and that it was also exempt from disclosure on the basis that it would be published in the future (section 27). The decision finds that the Ministers should have told Ms X that they didn't hold any information falling within the scope of her request.


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