9. What Constitutes a Freedom of Information Request?
Any request for recorded information is a request to which Freedom of Information Act procedures potentially apply. It should be noted that requests for information need not make mention of the FoIA. The only restrictions are as follows:
- Requests must be in writing (including emails and faxes)
- Requests must give the applicant's name and a return address – in the case of email requests the email address of the sender should be treated as the return address.
- Requests must adequately describe the information that is requested. Where a request falls into this category because it is ambiguous or does not describe the information sufficiently precisely, the University has an obligation to provide the applicant with advice and assistance so far as it is reasonable to do so.
Anyone can make a request for information under the FoIA. The Act makes no distinction between requests from people who are citizens of, or who are currently in the UK, Europe or any country in the world. All requests must be treated the same, irrespective of the country of origin.
If requests are received in a language other than English or if it is clear from the request that the applicant would have difficulty in understanding information in English, it may be reasonable for the University to use a translation service to translate the request into English so it can be dealt with. The Act does not, however, place a general duty upon the University to translate requests or information which it holds into other languages and the University therefore has the right to ask the applicant to re-frame the request in English. (See Reasonable Adjustments)
10. Being Prepared for Requests - Physical and Electronic Mail
In view of the 20 working day deadline for replying to FoI queries and the fact that a request is deemed to have been 'received' once it is delivered to the University or to the inbox of a member of staff, consideration needs tobe given to the operation of physical and electronic mail systems within the University. There are a number of ways in which departments can ensure that their physical and electronic mail systems are set up to receive and deal efficiently with FoI requests.
In regard to physical post, it may be sensible for departments to consider procedures by which, (for e.g.) in the event of extended staff leave, mail is either forwarded to an alternative address or permission is gained from the relevant member of staff for post to be opened in their absence so any potential FoI requests can be dealt with promptly.
With respect to electronic email, it may be sensible for all departments to advise any staff on extended leave from the University to activate automated 'out-of-office' responses that provide alternative contact details for FoI queries, as in such instances a request would not be considered 'received' until the applicant had resent the email to the alternative contact. If members of staff are in any doubt concerning how to set up 'out-of-office' responses correctly so as to avoid 'loops' (where the other party also has an automated reply), automated responses to mailing lists etc., they should contact IT Services in the first instance for advice and assistance.
The University has established an institutional email address for FoI queries (firstname.lastname@example.org), which will assist in directing requests to the appropriate area quickly, thereby easing the burden on individual members of staff.
11. Receiving and Assessing Requests
The key to the successful management of information requests is being able to discriminate between routine or straightforward requests, requests which require more careful processing and which therefore need to be referred immediately to the FoI Co-ordinator in the University Secretary's Office, and requests that should be dealt with under the remit of alternative legislation, e.g. Subject Access Requests under the Data Protection Act (see section on other access regimes).
(a) Routine requests
These are straightforward requests for information that have been dealt with as a matter of course prior to the FoIA, for e.g. requests for copies of documents produced by a department, contact details or details of services that the department provides to the public. Such requests should continue to be dealt with according to the usual routes – there is no need to engage FoI procedures or refer these kinds of requests to the University Secretary's Office, although the FoI Co-ordinator should be informed of the request so that it can be logged. It should be noted, however, that the 20 working day deadline for response must still be adhered to.
(b) Requests for Information included in the University’s Publication Scheme
Where requests are made for information included in the University's Publication Scheme), the enquirer should be directed to the Scheme for details on how to obtain the relevant information. There is no need to refer such requests to the University Secretary's Office, though the FoI Co-ordinator should be informed of the request so that it can be logged.
(c) More complex and/or sensitive requests
These will be requests for information which go beyond the day-to-day correspondence that is normally dealt with. Members of staff of the University receiving any such request for information (i.e. a non-routine request) must refer the request immediately to the FoI Co-ordinator in the University Secretary's Office. If the request is for information that might be sensitive; if its release might endanger the safety or health of any individual; if the request is for information that is subject to protective markings or if third party, potentially confidential information is involved (e.g. in the case of contracts, tenders or information provided by other public authorities), they are asked to bring this to the attention of the FoI Co-ordinator, so that the request can be dealt with appropriately. It should be noted that protective markings are not in themselves a reason not to release information, but they may be an indication that the information might be covered by an exemption.
The arrangements for referrals to the University Secretary's Office will be reviewed at a later date when the University has been able to gain a better idea of the requests being received and any issues arising from these requests, upon which time the feasibility of moving from central management of FoI to management by individual Departments will be considered. It should be noted that if a decision is taken to transfer responsibility to individual Departments, guidance by and opportunities for consultation with the University Secretary's Office will continue to be made available to any individual or Department requiring assistance.
(d) "Mixed" Requests
Requests that can be clearly classified as subject access requests should be redirected to the University's Data Protection Officer at email@example.com. Requests for environmental information should also be referred to the University Secretary's Office immediately, highlighting the fact that the request is likely to fall under separate legislation.
Cases where an enquirer requests information which needs to be considered under more than one access to information regime, however, are more complex.
In responding to a mixed request, it should be ensured that the request is dealt with within the closest timescale. For instance, a request which contains information which is both personal information under the DPA and information to be considered under the FoIA should aim to be dealt with within 20 working days. Members of staff referring such 'mixed' requests to the FoI Co-ordinator are asked to highlight such requests. This flow chart summarises clearly the procedure that will be followed by the FoI Co-ordinator in dealing with requests made under the FoIA.