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Dealing with a freedom of information request

Steps to consider when you receive a request under the Freedom of Information Act 2000 (FOIA):

1.    A request for information about your organisation may be a request under the Freedom of Information Act 2000. If the request is for “environmental information”, it will be covered by the Environment Information Regulations 2004. If the person is requesting their own personal data, this may be a subject access request under the Data Protection Act 1998. Further guidance on subject access requests can be found here.

2.    You need to firstly check that the FOIA applies to your school. If your school is publicly funded then the FOIA is likely to apply.  This includes Academies and maintained schools. As a maintained school, it is likely that such requests will be handled in conjunction with the Local Authority. As an Academy, the responsibility will fall solely on the school to deal with the request.

3.    A request for information under the FOIA should be in writing. However, it does not necessarily need to specify that it is a freedom of information request. It should also include the requester’s real name and an address or email address for correspondence. If it is not clear who has made the request then you should assist by telling them how to make a valid request.

4.    If you are not clear what information is being requested or the request is too broad, you should contact the requester promptly for clarification. The time for compliance starts once you have received the clarification that allows you to respond to the request.

Deadlines for responding to a FOIA request

1.    You need to respond promptly to requests and in any event within 20 working days, counting the first working day after the request is received. Schools are entitled to a longer period to respond where the response time includes non-school days (effectively school holidays). The relevant regulations are The Freedom of Information (Time for Compliance with Request) Regulations 2009 and 2010 allows schools a time limit of up 20 school days, or 60 working days if this is shorter. The time for compliance starts when the school receives request.

2.    You should diarise the deadline for response, which is calculated by whichever occurs first of either the twentieth working day following the date of receipt (disregarding any working day which isn’t a school day) or the sixtieth working day following the date of receipt.

3.    It is also sensible to maintain a log of the requests received and the date it was responded to. You will then be able to track whether you are receiving repeated or vexatious requests from the same person.

What information do you need to provide?

  1. You have an obligation to confirm whether you hold the information as well as providing the information requested (unless an exemption applies). If you are refusing all or part of the request, you should still confirm whether you hold the information. 
  2. You are required to carry out adequate searches for the information and you should obtain the necessary information from relevant colleagues to enable you to respond to the request. If you do not hold the information, you should respond to the request in writing and explain this.
  3. Please be aware that a request for information can be in the form of a question. If you hold the information that answers the question, you should provide it in your response.
  4. You do not need to produce the information if it not already held in a recorded form and you do not need to present the information in a new format, e.g. by creating a spreadsheet or a table. You simply need to provide information that exists.

Can you charge for dealing with a FOIA request?

  1. You may wish to consider charging a reasonable fee for dealing with the FOIA request. The FOIA does not allow for a flat charge, but you can recover costs such as photocopying, printing and postage. Normally you cannot charge for other costs, such as the staff time spent in gathering the information. If you intend to make a charge, you must serve a fee notice and you do not have to send the information until the fee is received.
  2. If you consider that the request would cost over £450 to deal with, you can refuse to deal with the request or offer to supply the information and recover your full cost for dealing with the request (including staff time). You should advise the requestor and offer them the opportunity to refine their request.

Are there any exemptions?

  1. You will need to consider whether an exemption applies to disclosure of the information requested. Remember that the purpose of FOIA is to provide transparency about public and publically funded organisations. If the requestor is not happy with your response, the requestor may complain to the Information Commissioner and this could result in the information being required to be disclosed.
  2. When considering whether or not an exemption applies, it would be sensible to seek advice due to the number of exemptions available. There are certain circumstances that may allow extra time for dealing with such a request.
  3. The most likely exemptions that may apply are:
  • Data Protection – if the information is personal data, it may be in breach of the Data Protection Act 1998 to disclose the information. If it is personal data about the requester, this should be dealt with as a subject access request if the. The information may also contain third party data and you may need to consider the public interest when applying the data protection principles.
  • Commercial Interests – if complying with the request would prejudice or would be likely to prejudice someone’s commercial interests. This is a qualified not absolute exemption and therefore is subject to a public benefit test, e.g. do the interests of the public to know this information outweigh the needs of the organisation to keep this information private?  For example, the pricing of the contract that may be considered to be commercially sensitive within the first few months of signing but in a year’s time when market conditions have changed may not be considered to be so commercially sensitive.

Is there anything you can do to help save time with future requests?

You should consider issuing a publication scheme, which could contain information that is commonly requested, including policies and minutes of meetings. In which case you can simply refer the requestor to the relevant part of the publication scheme, which could be published on your website.

For further guidance contact Helen Hirst.