Decisions Round-up: 30 July to 10 August 2018

 It can sometimes be difficult for public authorities to establish whether they hold requested information. In this week's round-up, we look at a case where an authority disclosed some information that wasn't actually information they held in their own right. It's also important for authorities to be clear with requesters from the start about what information they hold - one authority applied an exemption to information, only for our investigators to find out that it didn't actually hold it. We also look at one case of finely balancing public interest with commercial interests. Finally, we resolved 15 cases in July without the need for decision - where possible, it's worth trying to seek resolution throughout the FOI process.


Learning points:

  • Authorities, be clear when information is held or not held
    In Decision 114/2018, the authority initially provided redacted versions of two documents which it had retrieved during searches. However, it then became aware that the reason these documents were in its files was simply because officers had served on the Board of a separate organisation. The information was not held by the authority in its own right. This can be a difficult issue - our briefings on "Information not held" can help.

    In Decision 118/2018, the authority told a requester that it was withholding the information he'd asked for. It was only during our investigation that it became apparent that the authority didn't actually hold it. If the authority had given clear notice that it didn't hold the information, without any ambiguity, the situation could have been resolved far, far sooner.
  • The art of balancing public and commercial interests
    In Decision 117/2018, the public interest in either disclosing or withholding commercial information was finely balanced. In this case, we found the public interest lay in protecting the commercial interests of the contracting party, to ensure that it was not treated unfairly simply because it had entered into a contract with a public body. In this context, authorities can take account of the public interest in ensuring that relationships with external organisations are maintained. 

Decisions issued:

  • Decision 114/2018 David Telford and North Ayrshire Council
    The Council was asked for the minutes of Kelburn Castle Restoration Works Trust meetings. It provided two minutes with some information redacted. During our investigation, the Council became aware that it did not hold the information in its own right. We accepted that the Council did not hold the minutes for the purposes of the EIRs and did not require it to take any action.
  • Decision 115/2018 Mr S and the Scottish Police Authority
    Mr S asked for information about reciprocal arrangements with an independent arbiter. We found that the Scottish Police Authority failed to respond to his request and request for review within the required timescales.
  • Decision 117/2018 Michael Russell and Highland Council
    The Council was asked for a copy of an agreement with Scottish and Southern Energy (SSE) relating to the storage of wind turbine blades. The Council provided a copy of the agreement, but withheld payment figures on the basis that disclosure would prejudice SSE's commercial interests. The Commissioner agreed the payment figures were exempt and could be withheld.
  • Decision 118/2018 Mr D and Transport Scotland
    Mr D asked for information about the Gourock to Dunoon ferry service: a) the latest value for money analysis; and b) the latest analysis justifying the appropriate level of service for the communities' needs. After initially stating that the information was exempt from disclosure, Transport Scotland confirmed that it did not hold the information. After investigation, we accepted this.


Resolved cases

We resolved 15 cases in July without the need for a formal decision.

In four of these cases, the requester withdrew after receiving some or all of the withheld information. It's always worth reviewing whether disclosure is possible.

In a further four cases, the requesters withdrew their appeal on the basis of advice from our office:

  • in two cases, they accepted that complying with the request would cost more than £600, or that the information couldn't be disclosed for other reasons;
  • in one case, the requester withdrew after a discussion about appropriate advice and assistance;
  • in one case, the requester accepted that their request was too narrow to obtain the information they required.

One requester decided to start again with a new request, based on clarification obtained from the authority during our investigation.

One requester withdrew for personal reasons, and four cases were withdrawn without any reason being given.

One case was closed after being abandoned.

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