6 key facts that all staff should know about Freedom of Information
- The Act gives everyone both in and outside UEA a right of access to ANY recorded information held by UEA
- A request for information must be answered within 20 working days
- If you receive a request for information which mentions FOI, is not information you routinely provide, is unusual, or you are unsure of, you should pass the request to your FOIA contact or the Information Policy and Compliance Managers
- You should ensure that UEA records are well maintained and accessible to other staff, so that they can locate information needed to answer a request when you are not there
- As all documents and emails could potentially be released under the Act, you should ensure that those you create are clear and professional
- It is a criminal offence to destroy, conceal or amend emails or other record that has been requested under the Act and you may be liable for a fine if you do so
What is a request under FOIA?
A request must have the following characteristics
- It must be in a recorded format (e.g. print, email)
- It must state the name of the requester and contain contact details (an email address is sufficient)
- It must be clear enough for us to determine what exactly is being requested
Please note - requests for information that we give out as a matter of course should be treated as they are currently; if you routinely provide information to the public, staff and students, continue to do so as always.
What do you do if you receive what you think is a FOIA request?
If you routinely give out certain information to the public, staff and students, continue to give out this information as before.
If you receive a request for information which
- mentions Freedom of Information OR
- is NOT information you already routinely provide in the course of your work,
- you are unsure of OR
- is unusual,
Act quickly! Remember, by law the request must be answered within 20 working days.
If you are in doubt about any request for information you receive, please contact your FOIA Contact or the UEA Information Policy and Compliance Manager as soon as possible.
So – who are these FOI Contacts?
There is a FOI Contact for each administrative unit and Faculty within the University. A list can be found here.
Do we have to release everything that is requested?
No - the Act provides exemptions from disclosure where appropriate or necessary. There are 23 exemptions within the Act but not all will be generally applicable to UEA.
There are two types of exemptions, absolute and qualified.
An absolute exemption means that there is no obligation to release the information once the criteria for the application of the exemption are met and these include:
- Personal information whose release would contravene the Data Protection Act 1998
- Environmental information
- Information provided to the public authority in confidence
- Information accessible by other means to the requestor
A qualified exemption means that the exempted information is subject to a 'public interest' test in additional to meeting the criteria for application of the exemption. These exemptions include:
- Information intended for future publication
- Information whose release would prejudice the prevention or detection of crime or the apprehension of offenders
- Information whose release would endanger health and safety
- Information whose release would prejudice commercial interests
- Information whose release would inhibit the free and frank exchange of views for the purposes of deliberation or the free and frank provision of advice
Further information on the public interest test can be found here.
There are also other grounds which exempt information from being released which are not strictly 'exemptions'.
If the request is over the appropriate limit of 18 person hours (calculated as £450 at £25/hour) then we can either charge a fee or refuse the request. The calculation includes the time taken to locate, retrieve, extract and to undertake an initial review of the information. The calculation does not include the time to assess exemptions, redact exempted information and communication with the applicant.
It is UEA policy to refuse a request where the appropriate limit has been exceeded and not to request the payment of a fee.
Vexatious or repeated requests
A request can be refused if is considered 'vexatious' or if it is a repeated request from the same requester. A request is considered vexatious if:
- It has no serious purpose or value
- It is designed to cause disruption
- It has the effect of harassing the authority
- Compliance would impose a significant burden on the authority
- It is manifestly unreasonable or obsessive
Not all of these factors need be present for a request to be considered vexatious but the fewer factors that are applicable, the stronger each must be in order to justify finding a request vexatious.
It should be remembered that it is the request that is vexatious, not the requester. Just because a requester is insulting or obnoxious is not sufficient grounds for finding a request to be vexatious.
A repeat request is a request that is identical or substantially similar to a prior request received from the same requester and a reasonable time has not elapsed between the two requests (generally considered to be 60 days). We are under no obligation to respond to a repeat request.
How do you learn more about Freedom of Information?
We have produced an FAQ of common questions about the Freedom of Information Act specifically for the attention of staff.
The Information Commissioner's Office (ICO) has produced some guidance specifically aimed at the higher education sector which can be found under the freedom of information and research information heading on their Education webpage.
An online FOI training module is available for all UEA staff and students. The module takes around 30 minutes to complete and can be accessed from our training and resources page.
If you want a more ‘personal' introduction to Freedom of Information Act, then CSED offers a course twice yearly. Contact CSED or visit their website for further information or to book yourself on a course.
And, as always, you can contact the UEA Information Policy and Compliance Managers for advice and guidance.