Freedom of Information and Environmental Information: What Does it Mean for SOAS?
- What do we have to do? FoI in a nutshell
- Requests for information
- The Publication Scheme
- The Freedom of Information Staff Guide
- Help and assistance
1. What do we have to do? FoI in a nutshell.
Like other UK HE institutions, SOAS is subject to the Freedom of Information Act 2000. The Act imposes significant obligations on how we should provide information to the public and how we should manage our information. It requires us to:
- Respond to requests for information, in most cases by releasing what has been requested, and
- Produce and maintain a list of the information which we make available to the public, called a Publication Scheme.
Failure to do either of these things means that we will be breaking the law. We are also expected to manage our records in a way which supports the access rights created by the Act.
As well as the Freedom of Information Act, SOAS has to conform to the Environmental Information Regulations 2004. This is a piece of European legislation which has created a right of access to information about the environment, defined broadly to include things such as waste management, air quality and noise pollution. The rights and responsibilities are broadly similar to those created by Freedom of Information.
2. Requests for information
As a result of the Freedom of Information Act and the Environmental Information Regulations:
- Anyone, anywhere in the world can send a request for information to SOAS.
- Any member of staff can receive an information request. There is no requirement for applicants to use a central address, although we encourage them to do so if they consider their request to be an FoI or EIR request.
- We have to respond to information requests within 20 working days, even if the request is delivered to someone who is out of the office.
- Requests do not have to state that they are applications under the Freedom of Information Act or the Environmental Information Regulations. Enquirers do not need to mention the legislation at all, although requestors who think of their request in FoI or EIR terms generally do so.
- Strictly speaking, any written request for information held by the School - however mundane or routine - is covered by the legislation, unless it relates to the person making the request.
Requests under the Freedom of Information Act must be in writing - telephone or verbal enquiries don't count, as far as FoI is concerned. However, this is not the case for Environmental Information requests, which can be submitted verbally.
The legislation does not mean that we have release all of our information on request. It does mean, though, that we can only hold back information if there are valid grounds for doing so under the Act or Regulations. The presumption is that most information should be released on request, in the interests of promoting openness and accountability in the public sector.
If applicants are dissatified with how we've handled their information request, they can complain to the Information Commissioner. The Commissioner may require us to release information which we had previously withheld, if he believes that we have applied the legislation incorrectly. Usually, the Commissioner will require applicants to have gone through our own appeal procedures first.
It's therefore very important that all staff know what SOAS is required to do when handling requests for information. Guidance is provided by Dealing with requests for information and other sections of the FoI Staff Guide.
3. The Publication Scheme
HE institutions and other public bodies are now expected to be proactive in publishing information. The Freedom of Information Act says that we must summarise the information which we make publicly available in a Publication Scheme. This must describe the categories of information which we publish, the formats in which it is made available (e.g. on the web or in paper form), and whether any charges apply. We have a legal obligation to keep our Publication Scheme up to date. SOAS's Publication Scheme is based on a model scheme approved for HE institutions. Wherever possible, links are provided to examples of online documents.
Although it is a legal requirement, having a Publication Scheme also has a number of advantages. Information covered by the Scheme is exempt from FoI requests, as it is information which is available to the public by other means. The Scheme explains how copies of information covered by the Scheme can be ordered. By describing what we publish, and providing links to online information, the Publication Scheme also makes it less likely that information will be requested in the first place. It's therefore in the School's interest to ensure that as much routine policy and procedural information as possible is made publicly available and covered by the Scheme.
4. The Freedom of Information Staff Guide
The Guide is designed to help staff understand the School's obligations under the Freedom of Information Act and the Environmental Information Regulations, and what they need to do to ensure that SOAS meets these obligations. As well as this introduction, the Guide includes sections on:
- Dealing with requests for information
- What to do when you're out of the office
- Complaints and appeals
- Publishing and the Publication Scheme
- Contracts, contractors and suppliers
- FoI and the Students' Union
- Records management and FoI
- Frequently asked questions
A separate web page provides the public with guidance on Submitting a Freedom of Information or Environmental Information request.
SOAS's Freedom of Information Policy underpins the School's approach to compliance with the Freedom of Information Act and the Environmental Information Regulations, and is binding on all members of the School. The Staff Guide provides advice and guidance on how to implement the Policy.
5. Help and assistance
The Staff Guide should hopefully cover most of the questions and issues which staff are likely to have about the Freedom of Information Act and the Environmental Information Regulations. However, advice and assistance are also available from the School's Information Compliance Manager, who is responsible for ensuring SOAS's compliance with the legislation:
Information Compliance Manager
London WC1H 0XG
Telephone: +44 (0)20 7898 4150
Fax: +44 (0)20 7898 4019
Regular workshops on FoI aimed at staff are conducted by the ICM. See the Staff Development web pages for details of forthcoming events, and the FoI Training Resources web page for presentations used in previous workshops.
Last updated December 2008