Freedom of Information Staff Guide: Dealing with Requests for Information
1. The basics
- Who can make a request?
- What does a request look like?
- Who can receive a request?
- What should I do if I receive a request?
- How should I handle routine requests?
- When do we have to respond?
2. Other issues
- Can they submit more than one request?
- What if we don't understand the request?
- Do we have to release everything?
- What if the information is publicly available?
- What if the information is from another organisation?
- What if we don't hold the information?
- Do we have to provide information in specific formats?
- How much work do we have to do?
- Can we charge for information?
- Can they appeal?
- What about copyright?
- How do I recognise an Environmental Information request?
- Where can I get further help/information?
1. Freedom of Information requests: the basics
1.1 Who can make a request?
The Freedom of Information Act has created a very broad ranging right of access to the information which SOAS holds. The right to request information extends to anyone who wishes to make a request, including employees and students of the School, employees of outside organisations, journalists and members of the public. It applies regardless of age, country of residence or nationality. SOAS can therefore receive Freedom of Information requests from anyone anywhere in the world, and has to treat all requests equally under the law.
1.2 What does a request look like?
The law has set a very low threshold for Freedom of Information requests. In order to be a valid request under the Act, an enquiry must:
- Be in writing (however, this does not apply to requests for environmental information: see How do I recognise an Environmental Information request?).
- Provide the requestor's name. Give a contact address (which can be a postal address, email address or fax number).
- Describe the information which is requested.
Enquiries do not have to mention the Freedom of Information Act, or explain why the information is required. We can ask for further information to clarify the request or locate what has been requested (see What if we don't understand the request?), but we must not give applicants the impression that they have to justify or explain the reason for their request. No account can be taken of the motivation behind a request.
Any written request for information, received by the School by whatever means (post, fax, email etc), will therefore fall under the Freedom of Information Act.
However, the following types of communication are not Freedom of Information requests:
- Requests for information about the person making the request. These come under the Data Protection Act rather than the Freedom of Information Act, and should normally be referred to the Information Compliance Manager (see What should I do if I receive a request?).
- Requests for information relating to the environment. These have to be dealt with according to the Environmental Information Regulations, a separate piece of legislation which has created rights similar to Freedom of Information (see How do I recognise an Environmental Information request?). Such requests should always be referred to Information Compliance Manager.
- Communications which are not requests for information: e.g. complaints (unless the complainant requests information) or expressions of opinion.
- Requests for the views or opinions of members of SOAS. The right of access created by the Freedom of Information Act only applies to recorded information, so staff are under no obligation to divulge their unrecorded thoughts or opinions (e.g. to journalists).
Although requests should normally be in writing, in exceptional circumstances, where it appears that an enquirer is unable to submit a written request, it is acceptable to send a written confirmation of a telephone request to the enquirer's address, asking them to verify and return it. The enquiry will be treated as received once the verified request arrives.
1.3 Who can receive requests?
The School's website encourages Freedom of Information requests to be sent to a central address (see Submitting a Freedom of Information or Environmental Information request). However, we cannot require applicants to use that address. Consequently, Freedom of Information requests can potentially be sent to any member of the School's staff. Routine requests for information (which enquirers will usually not think of as Freedom of Information requests) are likely, in any case, to be sent to the most relevant part of the School, such as the Library or the Registry.
It is therefore very important that all staff:
- Understand SOAS's obligations under the Freedom of Information Act, as far as requests for information are concerned, and
- Take steps to ensure that their incoming post and emails are managed appropriately when they are away (see What to do when you're out of the office).
1.4 What should I do if I receive a request?
The first step is to check that the request meets the criteria for a valid Freedom of Information request (see What does a request look like?).
Assuming that these criteria have been met, you then have to decide whether:
- The request is a routine request which you or your department should deal with (see How should I handle routine requests?); or
- The request is a routine request which you can forward to a more appropriate part of the School; or
- The request is one which should be forwarded to the Information Compliance Manager (see below).
You should always forward to the Information Compliance Manager enquiries which:
- Mention Freedom of Information, Data Protection or the Environmental Information Regulations.
- Request information about the person making the enquiry, unless the request is a routine one which you would normally deal with (e.g. a request received by Registry from a former student for a transcript).
- Request information about the environment (see How do I recognise an Environmental Information request?).
- Seek information which you believe may be exempt from release (see Do we have to release everything?), or which you would not normally release.
- You estimate would take more than two and a half days in total to answer (see How much work do we have to do?).
- You don't know how to answer, e.g. because you don't know whether the School holds the information or which part holds it.
- Appear to be vexatious, or involve multiple requests submitted as part of a campaign (see Can they submit more than one request?).
Most enquiries from journalists should continue to be sent to the Press Office, who will forward the request to the Information Compliance Manager where appropriate. However, where the journalist specifically cites the Freedom of Information Act or Environmental Information Regulations, or in any way makes clear that their intention is to use the legislation, their request should always be sent to the Information Compliance Manager. The Information Compliance Manager will regularly report on all requests from journalists to the Press Office. The Press Office may ask to see draft responses in some cases, in order to ensure the accuracy and consistency of the information provided. As the School has to respond to requests within 20 working days (see When do we have to respond?), requests in the above categories must be forwarded to the Information Compliance Manager immediately.
Enquiries which do not fall into the above categories are likely to be routine enquiries which your department can deal with as part of its day to day business, provided this is done in a way which is sensitive to Freedom of Information considerations (see How should I handle routine requests?). If you receive a routine request which you know is normally handled by another part of the School, you should forward it to that department without delay, bearing in mind the tight deadlines which apply under Freedom of Information (see When do we have to respond?).
1.5 How should I handle routine requests?
SOAS has always received many routine enquiries for information, e.g. from prospective students, or from people wishing to use the Library and other resources. In most cases, our procedures for handling these enquiries should not have to change radically as a result of Freedom of Information. Most enquirers will not think of their request as a Freedom of Information request, and it would be contrary to enquirers' interests to introduce extra bureaucracy which might delay a response. There is no need to re-invent the wheel.
However, since even routine enquiries are covered by the Freedom of Information Act, there are certain legal requirements that have to be taken into account when dealing with routine requests. This section outlines the factors that you should consider when processing requests which fall outside the categories which should be immediately referred to the Information Compliance Manager (see What should I do if I receive a request?).
(1) Requests must be answered. Even if the School does not hold the information, we still have an obligation to inform the applicant. We cannot refuse to respond because a request is inconvenient or staff do not have the time to deal with it.
(2) The answer must be sent within 20 working days, which is an absolute statutory requirement (see When do we have to respond?). It isn't sufficient to send a holding response promising a full response at a later date. If you believe that it will take longer than 20 working days to deal with a request, you should contact the enquirer as soon as possible and ask if they are willing to agree to an extension, although they are under no obligation to do so. As the deadline is based on the date of receipt (see When do we have to respond?), it's important to make a note of when the request was received, unless this is obvious.
(3) Even if the request isn't for you, you still have to do something. You can't simply ignore a request because it asks for information which you do not have. If it relates to another part of School, forward it to that department as soon as possible, bearing in mind that the 20 working day deadline starts when the request was received by SOAS - not when you forward it internally. If you don't know who to send it to, contact your line manager, and as a last resort send it to the Information Compliance Manager as soon as possible (see Where can I get further help/information?). It is good practice to inform the requestor that you have forwarded their request, and to give them to contact details of the staff member or the department to whom you have passed the request.
(4) There is a limit on the amount of work which we have to do, although that limit is a generous one: 18 hours or about two and a half days of staff time for the research involved in answering an enquiry (see How much work do we have to do?). Refer any enquiry which you think will take longer than that to the Information Compliance Manager, as we may have to tell the applicant that we cannot answer their enquiry unless they narrow it down.
(5) You have a right to ask the enquirer for clarification if you don't understand the request, or you need further information to process it. We don't have to proceed further with their enquiry until they respond (see What if we don't understand the request?).
(6) Try to provide the information in the format which they've requested, unless it is impractical to do so (see Do we have to provide information in specific formats?). If you can't supply the information in the enquirer's preferred format, you should explain to them why this is the case.
(7) Are they requesting information which is publicly available? Many routine enquiries will be for information which the School has published, e.g. on its website. When you receive a routine request, check to see whether the information is included in our Freedom of Information Publication Scheme. If it is, you should refer the enquirer to the relevant part(s) of the Scheme: e.g. by sending them hyperlinks to the Scheme's web pages, or a printout of the Scheme if they lack Internet access (see What if the information is publicly available?).
(8) Charges must be in accordance with the Freedom of Information legislation. Usually, all we can charge for is postage and printing/photocopying, although different charges apply to information which is covered by our Publication Scheme (see Can we charge for information?).
(9) Enquirers have a right to appeal. When a complaint arrives about how we've handled a routine request, the department which responded to the request should initially try to resolve the complaint informally. However, enquirers also have a right to go through our formal appeal procedure for Freedom of Information requests, and they can appeal beyond that to the Information Commissioner (an independent regulatory body). Responses to informal complaints should make applicants aware of these rights (see Can they appeal? for further information).
(10) Keep a record of the request and your response. Recording the request is not only good business practice - it is essential to have a record in order to deal with follow-up requests and any complaints. SOAS will develop guidelines on how long to retain records of particular types of requests. As a general rule of thumb, records of routine requests should be kept for at least six months.
(11) It is strongly recommended that you develop a logging system, particularly if your department deals with many routine enquiries. At a minimum, any system should record when the request was received, the deadline for response, when the response was sent, and the amount of time spent on the request. A logging system will help to ensure that enquiries are processed in order of receipt and within the statutory deadline, and will also yield useful management statistics.
1.6 When do we have to respond?
The Freedom of Information Act says that we must respond to requests within 20 working days, starting on the first working day after the date when the enquiry arrived at SOAS. This is an absolute deadline. It can only be extended in the following circumstances, when the clock stops:
- If we are waiting for the applicant to pay a fee which we have notified to them (see Can we charge for information?).
- If we have asked the applicant to clarify their request, or to provide us with further details to help us locate the information, and we are waiting for their response (see What if we don't understand the request?).
- If an exemption applies which involves a public interest test, and we need extra time to consider whether the public interest in upholding the exemption outweighs the public interest in releasing the information (see Do we have to release everything?).
The fact that you may be away from the office when a request arrives is irrelevant, as far as the Freedom of Information Act is concerned. The 20 working day period starts when the request arrives at the School. This means that staff must:
- Follow the guidance on how to manage incoming post and emails during absence (see What to do when youre out of the office);
- Deal promptly with any routine requests which they receive, so that a response is sent within 20 working days (see How should I handle routine requests?); and
- Immediately forward on any requests which need to be sent to other parts of the School, or to the Information Compliance Manager (see What should I do if I receive a request?). Remember that the deadline is based on when the request was originally received by the School - not on when it is received by the person to whom you forward it.
2. Freedom of Information requests: other issues
2.1 Can they submit more than one request?
Yes. There is no legal limit on the number of Freedom of Information requests which an individual can submit. However, there are certain restrictions which apply to repeated Freedom of Information requests, which limit the amount of work which we have to do:
- We do not have to respond to an identical or substantially similar request from the same person unless a "reasonable interval" has elapsed since the previous request. The School will usually treat six months as being a reasonable interval.
- We do not have to comply with vexatious requests. "Vexatious" is not defined in the Freedom of Information Act. However, the repeated submission by the same person or a group of people acting together of trivial requests or requests which appear primarily designed to consume staff time will be treated by SOAS as vexatious.
- If we have received a request and, within 60 working days, we receive a similar or related request (e.g. a follow-up request) from the same applicant or from other people who appear to be acting with the applicant (e.g. as part of a campaign), we can treat the requests as if they were one request for the purpose of determining whether the cost of answering the requests would exceed the "appropriate limit" (see How much work do we have to do?). This means that the total cost of answering related requests received within 60 working days should not exceed £450 or 18 hours of staff time.
2.2 What if we don't understand the request?
We have a right to ask an enquirer to provide us with further information which we reasonably need in order to clarify their request or locate the information which they are seeking. A request for further information or clarification should be sent to the enquirer as soon as possible. However, we must not ask why they have submitted their request, or give them the impression that they have to justify their request. The time when we are waiting for their response does not count towards the 20 working day deadline for responding to Freedom of Information requests (see When do we have to respond?).
The Freedom of Information Act also requires us to provide enquirers with a reasonable level of advice and assistance. This can include helping them to frame their request in a way which can actually be processed, or helping them to narrow down their request to one which can be handled within the statutory limit (see How much work do we have to do?). However, we're not obliged to do this indefinitely. If we've provided assistance and the enquirer is still unable to describe the information in a way which allows us to locate it, we do not have to seek further clarification - we can process their request as it stands, explaining why we are unable to locate the information if we are unable to do so.
2.3 Do we have to release everything?
No. Firstly, two general points need to be kept in mind:
1. The Freedom of Information Act only covers recorded information: e.g. written information (on paper or in electronic form), or sound or moving picture formats. There is no obligation to disclose unrecorded information, such as the thoughts or opinions of staff members or conversations which were not written down - and it is difficult to see, in practical terms, how such information could be released.
2. The right of access applies to information which is held by SOAS at the time when a request for information is received. This means that we do not have to release information which:
- Was destroyed before the request was received;
- Is created after the request was received, but before we have responded to the request; or
- Is destroyed after receipt of the request, provided we can show that the information would have been destroyed anyway (e.g. in accordance with a retention schedule). However, note that it is a criminal offence to deliberately destroy or conceal information in order to prevent its release, once a request has been received.
In addition, recorded information held by the School does not have to be released if it is exempt from release under the Freedom of Information Act. While SOAS welcomes Freedom of Information as a way of demonstrating its openness and accountability, we do have information which we need to withhold in order to protect the interests of the School and the rights of the individuals and organisations with whom we do business. The Freedom of Information Act includes 23 exemptions which allow public authorities to refuse to release information in certain circumstances. SOAS will apply these exemptions where it is appropriate to do so, although we must not withhold information unless a valid exemption applies.
Some of the exemptions (such as those relating to defence or international relations) are unlikely to be relevant to SOAS. The following list summarises the exemptions which are likely to apply to requests for information received by the School:
1. The cost of locating the information would exceed the statutory limit (see How much work do we have to do?).
2. The request is vexatious (see Can they submit more than one request?).
3. The information is already accessible as a result of being included in our Freedom of Information Publication Scheme (see What if the information is publicly available?).
4. The information is intended to be published at a future date, provided this was decided before the request was received.
5. The disclosure of the information would prejudice:
- The prevention or detection of crime, the apprehension or prosecution of offenders, the administration of justice, and similar matters.
- Any investigation by SOAS into illegality, improper conduct, or anyone's professional or managerial fitness or competence.
- The protection of charities (such as SOAS) against misconduct or mismanagement, and the protection or recovery of the property of charities.
- Investigating the cause of an accident, and protecting the health and safety of persons at work and other persons.
6. The information is contained in documents filed with a court, served upon or by SOAS in connection with legal proceedings, or created by a court or court administrator in connection with legal proceedings; or the information was placed in the custody of or created by any person conducting an inquiry under an enactment, or an arbitration.
7. The disclosure of the information would, in the opinion of a suitably qualified person, prejudice the free and frank provision of advice and exchange of views, or would otherwise prejudice the effective conduct of public affairs.
8. Communications with the Royal Household, and information about the conferral of any Crown honour or dignity.
9. The disclosure of the information would endanger the physical or mental health or safety of any person.
10. The information is about the environment. Environmental information is exempt under the Freedom of Information Act, because a right of access exists under the Environmental Information Regulations (see How do I recognise an Environmental Information request?). Requests for information about the environment will be treated in accordance with the Regulations.
11. The information relates to the person requesting the information. Individuals have a right of access to data about themselves under the Data Protection Act, so people who submit requests for their personal data under the Freedom of Information will be asked to re-submit their request as a Data Protection subject access request (see Data Protection Act: Requesting Access to Personal Data for further information).
12. The information is personal data about a third party, and disclosure of the data would be contrary to the Data Protection Principles in the Data Protection Act.
13. The information was provided in confidence by a body or individual outside SOAS, and disclosure of the information would be an actionable breach of confidence (i.e. one for which the School could be sued).
14. The information is covered by legal professional privilege.
15. The information is a trade secret, or its disclosure would prejudice the commercial interests of SOAS or another organisation.
16. The disclosure of the information is prohibited by any enactment, is incompatible with any European Community obligation, or would constitute contempt of court.
Exemptions are a complex area of the Freedom of Information Act. For example: some of the above are "class based", which means that they apply to an entire class of information, whereas others involve a prejudice test - the exemption only applies if disclosure of the information would be likely to cause actual harm. Another distinction is between "absolute" and "qualified" exemptions: "absolute" exemptions do not involve a public interest test, while "qualified" exemptions require us to determine not only that the exemption applies, but also that the public interest in maintaining the exemption and withholding the information outweighs the public interest in releasing the information.
It is also relevant that the Act gives applicants two separate rights, which have to be treated separately as far as the exemptions are concerned: the right to be told whether SOAS holds the information (known as the "duty to confirm or deny"), and the right to have the information communicated to them. Usually, we will have to confirm that we hold the information, even if it is exempt from release. However, there may be rare cases where the very fact that we hold the information is itself subject to an exemption.
Because of these complexities, staff should not attempt to apply Freedom of Information exemptions on their own. If you receive a request for information which you believe may be exempt from release, you should always refer the request to the Information Compliance Manager (see Where can I get further help/information?).
2.4 What if the information is publicly available?
Many requests will be for information which SOAS has already placed in the public domain, for example on the School's website. Where information is publicly available, section 21 of the Freedom of Information Act says that we do not have to supply it in response to a Freedom of Information request, provided the information is included by our Freedom of Information Publication Scheme. In practice, what this means is that we should refer enquirers to the Scheme, where they have requested information which is covered by the Scheme.
The Scheme is available on the School's website. It summarises the major classes of information which SOAS makes publicly available, and contains examples of specific documents in each category, including links to on-line information. It also provides information about how to order copies and the formats in which information is available. Requests for material under the Scheme are normally handled by the Information Compliance Manager. If an enquirer does not have internet access, we should supply them with a printout of the Scheme.
2.5 What if the information is from another organisation?
The Freedom of Information Act requires us to release information which is held by the School when a request arrives, regardless of whether the information originated within SOAS or from outside the School. Information provided by outside organisations (such as other HE institutions, regulatory bodies or private companies) will have to be disclosed if it falls within the scope of a valid FoI request, unless an exemption applies. There are exemptions which can be used to refuse the release of outside information in certain circumstances. In particular, SOAS will not release information supplied from outside the School where:
- The information was supplied in confidence, and disclosure would be an actionable breach of confidence; or
- The information is a trade secret, or its release would prejudice the commercial interests of another organisation, and we believe that the public interest would not be served by releasing the information.
For further information on these and other FoI exemptions, see Do we have to release everything?
Where possible, we will consult with outside organisations where a request might involve the disclosure of information provided by them - especially where the organisation is not subject to the Freedom of Information Act. However, SOAS is ultimately responsible for deciding whether or not the information should be released, as the legal obligation to comply with the Freedom of Information legislation lies on the School.
2.6 What if we don't hold the information?
We are only obliged to release information which is held by the School at the time when a Freedom of Information request is received (see Do we have to release everything?). This means that if an enquiry asks for information which we don't have, we should respond by confirming that the information is not held by the School. We are not required to create information in order to satisfy a request. For example, if an enquiry asks for a particular type of policy which we do not have, there is no need to write a policy for the purpose of the request.
Some requests may ask for information which is not held by SOAS, but we know or believe that the information is held by another organisation. As we have a duty to assist applicants, we should provide them with the details of how to contact the other organisation. If the organisation is also subject to the Freedom of Information Act, we can transfer the request to them, but we should only do so if the applicant agrees to the transfer and the organisation has confirmed that they hold the information.
2.7 Do we have to provide information in specific formats?
The Freedom of Information Act allows enquirers to specify a format in which they want to receive the information. This can be:
- A copy of the information (in whatever form);
- A digest or summary of the information; or
- The right to inspect records containing the information.
The Act says that we should try to provide the information in the applicant's preferred format where possible, although we are not obliged to do so if it would be impractical. We can take cost into account when deciding whether it is reasonably practical to supply the information in a particular format. For example, it would not be practical for the School to have to digitise information which is only held in paper form. Providing on site access to files would also be impossible if the files contain a mixture of disclosable material and material which is exempt from release (see Do we have to release everything?). If we are unable to provide the information in the applicant's preferred format, we have to explain to them why this is the case.
If an enquirer has not expressed a preference for a particular format, we can supply the information in the format which is most convenient for the School, taking into account factors such as whether or not the applicant has access to email.
2.8 How much work do we have to do?
There is a legal limit on the amount of work which we are required to do to respond to a Freedom of Information request. This "appropriate limit" has been set at £450 for HE institutions, and represents the cost of finding the information which we need to answer an enquiry. Usually, the main component of dealing with a request will be staff time. This has to estimated at £25 per hour, so the "appropriate limit" is the equivalent of 18 hours or about two and a half days of staff time for a single member of staff.
The appropriate limit is based solely on the costs involved in determining whether we hold the information, and locating, retrieving or extracting it. We cannot count other time which we might spend in dealing with a request: for example, in deciding whether an exemption applies.
If we estimate that the cost of responding to a request would exceed the appropriate limit, we have three options: we can provide the information and charge a fee for the full cost of processing the request; we can provide the information and waive the fee; or we can refuse to comply with the request. SOAS's policy, in all cases, is to refuse to comply with Freedom of Information requests where we estimate that the cost of finding and extracting the information would be greater than the appropriate limit.
When we decide that a request is likely to exceed the appropriate limit, we must inform the applicant as soon as possible. Where possible, we must also try to advise the applicant on how they could narrow down or re-focus their request to one that would be within the limit (e.g. by reducing the number of questions which they have asked, or covering a shorter time period).
2.9 Can we charge for information?
In most cases, any charges which we can impose for Freedom of Information requests are likely to be minimal. If it would cost less than the "appropriate limit" to respond to a request (see How much work do we have to do?), we can only charge for postage and reproduction costs (printing, photocopying, etc). The Ministry of Justice has said that charges are expected to be "reasonable", and that charges for printing/photocopying are expected to be no more than 10 pence per sheet (although this is not legally binding). It is therefore unlikely to be worth charging if only a small amount of photocopying is involved in answering a request.
If we do decide to charge, we have to send the enquirer a "fees notice" specifying the amount which they have to pay, before we incur the costs involved. The period when we are waiting for them to respond to a fees notice does not count towards the 20 working day deadline for responding to Freedom of Information requests. We do not have to supply the information until payment is received, and we can treat their request as withdrawn if we do not receive payment within three months.
Different charges apply to information which is covered by our Freedom of Information Publication Scheme (see What if the information is publicly available?). Where the request is for a publication which the School sells, we can charge the same as for any other person ordering the publication. In most cases, information in the Scheme is available free on-line. We charge for printing/photocopying where enquirers need the information in paper format, or the information is only available in paper form. For further information about charges, see the Publication Scheme.
2.10 Can they appeal?
Enquirers who are unhappy with how we've dealt with their request have the right to to ask for a review of their case. Appeals can be internal, following SOAS's own procedures, or external, involving the Information Commissioner. Internal complaints and appeals also fall into separate categories: those relating to enquiries dealt with by the Information Compliance Manager, those relating to the Publication Scheme, and those relating to routine requests.
2.10.1 Internal appeals
Enquiries dealt with by the Data Management Officer, e.g. requests which are explicitly submitted as Freedom of Information requests (see What should I do if I receive a request?): applicants are encouraged to contact the Information Compliance Manager in the first instance if they are unhappy with the handling of their request. SOAS also operates a formal appeal procedure for Freedom of Information, Environmental Information and Data Protection requests which applicants can go through, if they choose to do so. Formal appeals must be submitted in writing to the Deputy Secretary. For further details, see Freedom of Information, Environmental Information and Data Protection Appeal Procedures.
Complaints about the Publication Scheme are dealt with in the same way as complaints relating to requests dealt with by the Information Compliance Manager: i.e. applicants are encouraged to contact the DMO in the first instance, and can also go through the School's formal Freedom of Information appeal procedures. See the Publication Scheme's Feedback and Complaints page for further information.
Routine requests are those which are answered by departments without the involvement of the Information Compliance Manager (see How should I handle routine requests?). Complaints about routine enquiries should initially be dealt with on an informal basis by the department which responded to the enquiry. For guidance on how to respond to complaints about routine requests, see Complaints and appeals.
In most cases, an informal response should be sufficient to resolve a complaint about a routine request. However, applicants who are still dissatisfied have the right to go through our formal Freedom of Information appeal procedures, and beyond that to the Information Commissioner, if they choose to do so. We have a legal obligation to inform them of these rights. When you respond to a complaint about a routine request, ensure that you include information about how the enquirer can access our formal appeal procedures. This can be done by including a link to the text relating to appeals in Submitting a Freedom of Information or Environmental Information request, or by giving a link to the School's Freedom of Information, Environmental Information and Data Protection Appeal Procedures.
2.10.2 External appeals
The Office of the Information Commissioner is an independent agency which regulates Freedom of Information. Applicants can appeal to the Commissioner if they believe that we have not followed the Freedom of Information Act correctly in our response to their request. The Commissioner will usually require them to have exhausted our internal appeal procedures first. The Commissioner will investigate the case, and may require SOAS to release information if he determines that the information should have been released. The Commissioner's decisions can be appealed to the Information Tribunal, and from there to the courts.
2.11 What about copyright?
The supply of information under the Freedom of Information Act does not give the person or organisation who receives it an automatic right to re-use the information in a way which would infringe copyright, for example, by making multiple copies, publishing and issuing copies to the public. Any information which is supplied will continue to be protected by copyright law. In most cases, copyright will belong to SOAS, although copyright may belong to other organisations or individuals.
Brief extracts (e.g. short quotations) of any material which is supplied under FoI may be reproduced under the fair dealing provisions of the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act 1988, provided this is done for research or private study for non-commercial purposes, criticism, review or news reporting. More extensive re-use must only be carried out with prior written permission from SOAS, or the copyright owner if copyright is not owned by SOAS. Otherwise, re-use is likely to infringe copyright.
In some cases, SOAS may have to provide information in response to an FoI request where the copyright of the information is owned by another organisation or individual. If the Freedom of Information Act requires us to release the information, any copying or reproduction which we have to do will not infringe copyright. However, the person who receives the information is likely to need the permission of the rights owner if they want to re-use the information (see above).
2.12 How do I recognise an Environmental Information request?
Information about the environment is not covered by the Freedom of Information Act. Instead, access is controlled by the Environmental Information Regulations 2004, which have created similar rights to FoI. The Regulations implement a European Union directive which, in turn, is based on international treaty obligations.
"Environmental information" is defined broadly in the Regulations, and includes a number of areas which might not be thought of as relating to the environment. The Regulations cover information about:
- The state of the elements of the natural environment, such as the air and atmosphere, water, soil, land, landscape and biologcal diversity.
- Factors which impact on these elements, such as pollution, energy, noise and waste.
- Policies, plans and programmes and other measures which affect or are likely to affect environmental elements and factors, and cost-benefit and other economic analyses used in environmental decision making.
- Human health and safety, conditions of human life, and human sites and structures, where these are or may be affected by or through any of the above.
We have to treat a request for information in any of these categories as coming under the Environmental Information Regulations, even if the enquirer does not mention the Regulations, or submits it as a Freedom of Information request instead. For example, the Regulations would cover requests received by SOAS for information on:
- Air pollution (e.g. due to dust or poor ventilation) or noise pollution.
- Energy usage and energy efficiency.
- Waste generation, waste disposal and recycling.
- Use of chemicals (e.g. cleaners and solvents).
- Environmentally-related health and safety issues.
The Regulations have created access rights which are broadly similar to the Freedom of Information Act, but there are certain differences: e.g. requests do not have to be in writing, there are fewer exemptions, and there is no "appropriate limit" (see How much work do we have to do?). For these reasons, requests that come under the Regulations are always dealt with by the Data Management Officer. If you have received an enquiry which you believe may be a request for environmental information, please pass it to the Information Compliance Manager immediately - bearing in mind that like FoI requests, Environmental Information requests have to be answered within 20 working days.
2.13 Where can I get further help/information?
SOAS's Information Compliance Manager is responsible for ensuring SOAS's compliance with Freedom of Information legislation, and processes certain types of requests for information (see What should I do if I receive a request?). The Information Compliance Manager can provide staff with advice and assistance on FoI issues. The Information Compliance Manager can be contacted at the following address:
Information Compliance Manager
Room 108, SOAS
London WC1H 0XG
Telephone: +44 (0)20 7898 4150
Fax: +44 (0)20 7898 4159
The websites of the Office of the Information Commissioner and the Ministry of Justice both contain extensive information about Freedom of Information. The Information Commissioner is the regulatory body which oversees compliance with the legislation, while the Ministry is the government department responsible for the FoI legislation. The JISC Legal Information Service has also produced a number of briefing papers on FoI issues aimed at the HE sector.
Last updated December 2010