SOAS Freedom of Information Staff guide: Frequently Asked Questions
Are academic research or teaching materials covered by FoI?
The current thinking appears to be yes. The JISC Legal Information Service has issued a briefing paper which suggests that undergraduate and Masters dissertations will potentially be disclosable in response to Freedom of Information requests, where they are retained by the institution. It therefore stands to reason that more advanced forms of research carried out by SOAS staff in the course of their contracts of employment will also be covered. Similarly, teaching materials produced by staff for SOAS courses will also come within the scope of Freedom of Information and the Environmental Information Regulations.
As far as research is concerned, there are a number of exemptions which could potentially be applied should a request be received. These include the exemptions in the Freedom of Information Act for:
- Information accessible by other means, if the results of the research or the raw data behind it have been published.
- Information intended to be published, if an intention to publish the research was formed before the request was received.
- Personal data, information provided in confidence or commercially sensitive information, in respect of certain types of research data (e.g. information supplied by interviewees or survey respondents).
In addition, any information supplied in response to a Freedom of Information or Environmental Information request will continue to be subject to copyright protection. This means that if academic research or teaching materials have to be released, the person who receives the information will not be able to re-use it without permission except in a very limited way, as permitted by copyright law. See Dealing with Requests for Information for further details.
Are my emails covered by FoI?
Yes. The right of access under the Freedom of Information Act and the Environmental Information Regulations extends to all recorded information held by the School, regardless of the format or storage medium. This means that emails in your SOAS email account could potentially be disclosed in response to an information request. However, personal emails to friends, relatives etc which are not work-related would be exempt from disclosure, as they contain information relating to your private life.
Can my personal information be released under FoI?
If you are seeking information about yourself, you cannot do so under the Freedom of Information Act or the Environmental Information Regulations. There are exemptions in the Act and Regulations for data about the person making the request, because individuals have a right of access to data about themselves under the Data Protection Act. This means that if you submit an FoI or EIR request for information about yourself, you will be asked to re-submit your request as a Data Protection Act request. See Requesting Access to Personal Data for details of our procedures (which are different to those for Freedom of Information and Environmental Information requests).
Certain limited categories of information about individuals can be released to third parties in response to a Freedom of Information or Environmental Information request. The Information Commissioner has indicated that it is reasonable to release:
- Basic details about staff, such as name, job title, responsibilities and work contact details. SOAS already publishes much of this information, e.g. in the SOAS Calendar, directories and websites.
- The salaries and business expenses of very senior staff, and grades of more junior staff.
- Information about decisions and actions taken by individuals in an official or work capacity. This is fundamental to the accountability aspect of Freedom of Information and Environmental Information. For example, if a staff member's name appears as the author or recipient of a work-related letter or email which has to be released, the identity of the author or recipient will also be released.
In certain situations, we may be able to withhold information in the above categories. For example, we could refuse to release a staff member's contact details or information about decisions made by them if disclosure would be likely to endanger their health or safety.
Other types of personal information will not normally be released without the permission of the person who is the subject of the data. Doing so would be likely to contravene the Data Protection Principles set down in the Data Protection Act, and would therefore be subject to exemptions in the Freedom of Information Act and the Environmental Information Regulations.
Can references be released?
Not under the Freedom of Information Act. If a request is received from the person who is the subject of the reference, they will be asked to re-submit their request as a Data Protection Act request (see Can my personal information be released under FoI? in these FAQs). Under the Data Protection Act, a right of access only exists to references received by SOAS (not to references produced by SOAS), and then only if the information can be released without disclosing personal information about other people. For further information, see SOAS's Data Protection Policy. Requests for copies of references relating to other people will be refused, as this would involve the release of personal data which is exempt under the FoI Act.
Can we destroy information which has been requested?
Only if you can demonstrate that the information would have been destroyed anyway under a policy or procedure which existed before the request was received. For example, if a retention schedule specifies that a class of information should be destroyed after a certain number of years, it can still be legally destroyed if its destruction date happens to fall in the period after a request has been received but before a response has been sent. However, it is good practice in this situation to avoid destroying the information until the request had been answered.
Under no circumstances should you deliberately destroy information which has been requested in order to prevent its release. Doing so is a criminal offence under the Freedom of Information Act and the Environmental Information Regulations, for which you could be held individually liable as well as SOAS.
Do we have to disclose confidential information?
'Confidential' has a particular meaning, as far as the Freedom of Information Act is concerned: it means information provided to the School from an organisation or an individual outside SOAS, whose disclosure in response to an information request would constitute an actionable breach of confidence (i.e. one for which we could be sued). Such information is exempt from disclosure under the Freedom of Information Act. However, this exemption does not apply to information created within SOAS (including information transferred from one part of the School to another), or to information which is merely sensitive.
Sensitive information may be subject to an exemption under the Freedom of Information Act or the Environmental Information Regulations, but it cannot be assumed that all internally generated information labelled as 'confidential' is exempt from disclosure. The key point is that, regardless of how we classify it, information can only be withheld if a valid exemption applies under the Act or Regulations. For example, reserved minutes may have to be released in response to a request, if there is no relevant exemption that would justify not providing the information to the applicant.
Does FoI apply to older information?
Yes. The Freedom of Information Act and the Environmental Information Regulations apply to all recorded information held by the School, regardless of when it was created or filed.
Can we ask them why they want the information?
No. Provided the request meets the basic requirements set by the Freedom of Information or Environmental Information legislation (see Dealing with requests for information), we have to provide the information unless a limit or an exemption applies. We cannot take into account the motives of the requestor. The code of practice on how to handle Freedom of Information requests issued by the government says that applicants should not be given the impression that they have to justify their request.
What happens if someone tries to split a big request into lots of little requests?
There are provisions which allow us to prevent individuals or groups of people from circumventing the limit set by the Freedom of Information legislation on the amount of work which we are required to do to respond to a Freedom of Information request. If we receive identical or similar requests within 60 working days from the same person or from a group of people who appear to be acting together (e.g. as part of a campaign), we can treat them as if they were a single request for the purpose of determining whether the time required to locate and extract the information would exceed the "appropriate limit" of 18 hours of staff time (see Dealing with requests for information). We still need to respond to each enquiry individually, but we may refuse to comply if the cost of responding to all the requests would exceed the appropriate limit.
In certain circumstances, we may refuse to respond to multiple requests from the same person or a group of people on the grounds that the requests are vexatious. This exemption under the Freedom of Information Act can be applied regardless of whether the requests arrived within 60 working days of each other. A typical example would be a pattern of nuisance or trivial requests which appear to be designed to consume staff time. Contact the Information Compliance Manager (see What if I need further information? in these FAQs) if you have received what you believe to be a vexatious request, as we need to have valid grounds for invoking this exemption.
The Environmental Information Regulations do not contain any equivalent to the "appropriate limit" set by the Freedom of Information legislation, and there are no provisions which restrict the submission of multiple or campaign requests. However, we do not have to respond to EIR requests which are "manifestly unreasonable", and this could be used to refuse to comply with requests which are clearly vexatious.
What about examination marks/scripts?
Candidates cannot request access to their own examination marks or scripts under the Freedom of Information Act. They can gain access to their examination marks and examiners' comments (but not examination scripts) by submitting a request under the Data Protection Act (see Requesting Access to Personal Data for further information). Requests for access to other individuals' examination marks will be refused, as this would involve the release of personal data which is exempt from release. However, we would have to release statistics on examinations, if requested, provided this did not release data which could lead to the identification of individuals.
What happens if we break the FoI Act?
If we fail to respond to a Freedom of Information or Environmental Information request, or we handle it in a way with which the applicant is dissatisfied, he or she has the right to ask for a review of their case under our internal appeal procedures. For further details, see Freedom of Information, Environmental Information and Data Protection Appeal Procedures. Dissatisfied applicants are encouraged to contact the Information Compliance Manager to attempt to resolve their complaint informally, before resorting to our formal appeal procedures. If the applicant's appeal is upheld, any information which has to be released will be provided as soon as possible.
Applicants can also appeal to the Information Commissioner, the agency which monitors compliance with the Freedom of Information Act and the Environmental Information Regulations. Usually, the Commissioner will require them to have gone through our internal appeal process first. The Commissioner will investigate the circumstances of the case, and will issue a Decision Notice upholding or rejecting the appeal. If the appeal is upheld, the Decision Notice may require us to release information to the applicant. We and the applicant have the right to appeal the Commissioner's decision to the Information Tribunal, whose decisions can be appealed to the courts on points of law.
The Commissioner also has the power to investigate whether our handling of information requests and our management of our records conforms to two codes of practice issued by the government under the Freedom of Information Act. If the Commissioner determines that we are failing to abide by the codes, he can issue a non-binding Practice Recommendation specifying the steps which the School should take to conform. Staff should also note that the Freedom of Information Act and the Environmental Information Regulations make it a criminal offence to deliberately destroy, amend or conceal information which has been the subject of a Freedom of Information or Environmental Information request in order to prevent its release. Individual staff can be held liable for this as well as SOAS.
What if I need further information?
Other sections of the Freedom of Information Staff Guide will hopefully provide the information which you need to understand the School's obligations under the Freedom of Information Act and the Environmental Information Regulations. If further advice or assistance is needed, please contact the School's Information Compliance Manager at the following address:
Information Compliance Manager
London WC1H 0XG
Telephone: +44 (0)20 7898 4150
Fax: +44 (0)20 7898 4019
What if I receive a request for information which I don't have?
You don't have the means to answer the request, but you must still take some action. If it's obvious that a request relates to another part of the School, send it to that department as soon as possible. Let them know when the request arrived, as the 20 working day deadline for our response starts when a request is delivered to SOAS, not when you forward it internally. If you aren't sure which part of the School holds the information or whether the School holds the information, consult with your line manager, and as a last resort send the enquiry as soon as possible to the School's Data Management Officer (see What if I need further information? in these FAQs). Note that certain types of requests (e.g. those which mention Freedom of Information, Data Protection or the Environmental Information Regulations) should always be sent to the Data Management Officer (see Dealing with requests for information for further details).
If you forward a request internally, it is good practice to inform the person who submitted the request of this fact, and to give them the contact details of the staff member or the department to whom you have passed the request.