Decisions Round-up: 3 to 7 September 2012

There were seven decisions published by the Commissioner this week, containing a number of valuable learning points.

Key messages:

  • Look out for requests for review
    Authorities should be vigilant in recognising requests for review (Decision 147/2012). Requesters aren't required to make a formal review request, nor cite the FOI Act - they simply have to write, setting out why they're unhappy with the handling of a request. It's important that staff know how to identify potential requests for review, to avoid these being overlooked.
  • Even if you think a request is vexatious, consider your duty to advise and assist
    Offering help and advice on how to approach a request or address an underlying problem can often help to resolve an issue. During one investigation (Decision 145/2012) the authority tried to engage with the requester in a fresh attempt to resolve a matter which had been the subject of correspondence over 20 years. Despite its efforts the authority was unsuccessful, but its approach still had benefits because engaging with the requester to provide help and advice supported its arguments when the appeal was made to us.
  • Does a "complaint" contain an information request?
    Remember that requesters are not required to mention either FOI or the EIRs when they make their requests - all they have to do is ask for information. In two decisions published (Decision 143/2012 & Decision 144/2012), we found that authorities had failed to spot a request for information in correspondence that was being dealt with through the authority's complaints procedure. Staff throughout an authority should be trained and ready to spot requests to ensure they aren't missed.
  • If information can be released, it should be released
    Where information is suitable for release, authorities should look to do so at the earliest opportunity. In one case (Decision 142/2012), it wasn't until our investigation was underway that the authority concluded that they could release most of the requested information. The early release of information significantly reduces the burden of dealing with requests for authorities, along with the subsequent administrative effect of responding to our investigation. Importantly, it also ensures that requesters can access the information they need as quickly and as painlessly as possible.
  • Authorities will not hold information indefinitely
    Essential to efficient handling of FOI requests is good records management. An essential part of good records management is the appropriate retention and destruction of records - e.g. after a specific period has passed, or when the information is no longer required for business, historical or statutory purposes. While information can legitimately be destroyed in accordance with records management procedures, it is an offence to deliberately destroy, alter or conceal information once an FOI request has been received for it. Good records management makes an offence less likely to occur and also has the benefit of making information easier to retrieve.

    In one of this week's decisions (Decision 146/2012), a requester sought access to information which had informed a letter from the Council in 1998 ? information which had previously been destroyed. The Council was able to demonstrate it no longer held the information.

Summary of decisions:

  • Decision 141/2012 - Mr Jock Meikle and the Scottish Ministers
    Mr Meikle asked various question about money which had been spent on alcohol. Following investigation, we found that Ministers had initially failed to identify the request as a request for information, leading to a failure to respond within the required timescale.
  • Decision 142/2012 - Mr Martin Campbell and City of Edinburgh Council
    The Council refused Mr Campbell's request for information about works carried out under statutory notices. The information was subsequently released to the requester - subject to some redactions - following the start of our investigation. We accepted that the Council did not hold some of the requested information, but did not accept its reasons for initially withholding the remainder.
  • Decision 143/2012 - Ms N and North Lanarkshire Council
    The requester asked for information about a complaint made about her. While we identified some concerns in the way the Council had dealt with the request, we nevertheless found that the Council had correctly withheld the information under the "personal information" exemption.
  • Decision 144/2012 - Mr William Speirs and Scottish Water
    Mr Spiers had asked for information on a flood which had affected his property. Following the provision of information, Mr Speirs believed that more information was held, which had not been provided. While we found some procedural problems in the handling of the request - including a failure to recognise the request as a request for environmental information - we concluded that no further relevant information was held.
  • Decision 145/2012 - Mr B and Aberdeenshire Council
    This request was for information contained in the "personal files" of an ex-employee. The authority did try to engage with the requester in a fresh attempt to resolve the matter, but was unsuccessful. During our investigation, the Council argued that, taking into account the previous pattern of correspondence with the requester, the request should be considered as vexatious. In this case, we agreed.
  • Decision 146/2012 - Mr K and South Lanarkshire Council
    Mr K's FOI request included a request for information that had informed a letter the Council sent to him in 1998. On this point, we accepted that the Council no longer held relevant information, having considered the searches undertaken by the Council to locate relevant data. We found that other information sought by Mr K had been appropriately withheld under the personal information exemption.
  • Decision 147/2012 - Mr Colin Mortimer and City of Edinburgh Council
    Mr Mortimer asked the Council for information on work carried out to his property. The Council failed to provide a response to Mr Mortimer's request. After 20 working days Mr Mortimer wrote asking why he hadn't received a response, but again no response was forthcoming. Our technical decision requires the Council to respond to Mr Mortimer's request for review.


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