Freedom of Information Act: procedure for dealing with requests

1. Purpose

The purpose of this policy is to provide a framework to ensure that Reading Borough Council and Brighter Futures for Children fully endorses and adheres to the principles of Freedom of Information as defined in the Freedom of Information Act 2000. Compliance with the Act will be achieved by making sure that we have an up to date Publication Scheme and that requests for information are dealt with as set out in this policy.

This Policy has been approved by the Information Governance Board and is evidence of the commitment to comply with the Freedom of Information Act.

2. Scope

This policy applies to all:

  • Reading Borough Council (RBC) and Brighter Futures for Children (BFFC) and elected members who manage and handle information held by, or on behalf of RBC and BFFC.
  • It applies to all the information RBC and BFFC holds i.e. all the information created, received and maintained by staff and Members of the Council in the course of their work. Information can be held in all types of format including paper documents, electronic, visual and any other type of records that are not about living individuals.

3. What is the Freedom of Information Act

The Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) gives rights of public access to information held by public authorities.

It does this in two ways:

  • Public authorities are obliged to publish certain information about their activities
  • Members of the public are entitled to request information from public authorities.

The Act covers any recorded information that is held by a public authority in England, Wales, Northern Ireland and by UK wide public authorities based in Scotland.

The Act does not give people access to their own personal data (information about themselves) such as their health records. If a member of the public wants to see information that a public authority holds about them, they must make a Subject Access Request under the Data Protection Act.

Compliance with the Act is a legal duty and is overseen by the Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO).

4. Principles

The main principle behind freedom of information legislation is that people have a right to know about the activities of public authorities, unless there is a good reason for them not to.

  • Everybody has a right to access official information. Disclosure of information should be the default – in other words, information should be kept private only when there is a good reason and it is permitted by the Act;
  • an applicant (requester) does not need to give you a reason for wanting the information;
  • you must treat all requests for information equally, except under some circumstances relating to vexatious requests and personal data. The information someone can get under the Act should not be affected by who they are. All requesters should be treated equally, whether they are journalists, local residents, public authority employees, or foreign researchers; and
  • because we should treat all requesters equally, we should only disclose information under the Act if you would disclose it to anyone else who asked. In other words, we should consider any information you release under the Act as if it were being released to the world at large.

A valid FOI request must:

  • Be in writing. This can be by letter or email. It could be made via the web, or through social media sites.
  • Provide enough information to determine the information requested, however there is no legal requirement to state why the information is required.
  • Include the requester’s postal address or email address.
  • Include the requester’s name.

For a request to be valid under the Act, the provisions of section 8 of the Act must be complied with. This includes a requirement for the name of the requestor to be provided. Section 8(1)(b) of FOIA requires that a request for information must include the requester’s real name.

If the requester:

  • fails to provide a name;
  • can’t be identified from the name provided (for example because they have only used their first name or initials); or
  • is using an obvious pseudonym,

then their request won’t meet the requirements of section 8(1)(b) and will technically be invalid.

Where a valid name is not provided then the request does not meet the requirements of the Act and the Council have no obligation to confirm or deny whether the information is held. The Council is also under no obligation to provide a formal refusal notice.

5. Timeframe

Under the Act, public authorities may take up to 20 working days to respond, counting the first working day after the request is received as the first day. The Council will aim to respond to all or 90% (as a minimum service standard) requests within 20 working days of receipt.

Working day means any day other than a Saturday, Sunday, or public holidays and bank holidays.

The time allowed for complying with a request starts when the organisation receives it, not when it reaches the relevant teams that the requests relates to.

The Council can issue the response up to the 20th working day to meet the requirements and cannot be held accountable for the length of time it takes to be delivered to the requestor.

Under the Act there is provision for the public authorities to claim a reasonable extension to this limit, up to an additional 20 working days, where it needs more time to consider the public interest test.

The Act also allows public authorities to apply variations to the normal 20 working day timescale in some limited circumstances.

Noted: Where a complex case is received, CRT will seek advice from the Information Governance Team. If this is likely to delay the response, the customer will be informed.

6. Exemptions

The Act has a series of exemptions that may prevent the right of access to information and which therefore may prevent release including:

  • Information accessible to applicant by other means
  • Information intended for future publication
  • Environmental information
  • Information provided in confidence

Some exemptions are ‘absolute’ either in whole or part. This means that the requested information does not need to be disclosed under any circumstances.

Others are ‘qualified’ exemptions in that they are subject to a public interest test either in whole or part. This means that a public interest test will be carried out and the information will only be withheld if the public interest in not disclosing is greater than the public interest in disclosing.

Some of the ‘qualified’ exemptions are also subject to a prejudice test, which must be carried out before the information can be considered exempt. This test considers whether harm will or is likely to be caused if the information is released.

Expert opinion should always be sought from the Council’s Information Governance Team, when considering if any exemptions apply to a request.

Please refer to Appendix A for a list of exemptions.

7. Procedure

The Procedure will be managed by the Customer Relations Team, for the purpose of the FOI Module system, CRT will be noted as The Triage Team and Response Team.

  • Customer logs FOI request through the web form (any requests received via post, email or social media will be logged by the Customer Relations Team (CRT).
  • Customer will receive an automated acknowledgment of the request within 1 working day of receipt by the Triage Team (CRT), which will include the due date.
  • The Triage & Response team will review the request and identify the Service or Services that the information relates to within 1 day of receipt.
  • The request will be assigned to the relevant Service (known to the system as Contributor) to provide the response by 10 working days.
  • If assigned incorrectly, the Contributor must inform the Response Team and reject it to be reassigned within 1 working day. Or they can reassign it to the officer who is best placed to respond.
  • The information collated from the Service will be drafted into a response from the Response Team within 1 working day of being received from the Contributor.
  • Responses Team (CRT) will check the information and send it to the Approver for sign off.
  • The response will be reviewed by the Approver (Executive or Assistant Director) for the relevant service for approval. If approval is not given it will be sent back to the Response Team (CRT) to liaise with the Contributor to provide clarification with as soon as possible.
  • Once the response has been approved the Response Team will send out to the requestor and add to the disclosure log on day 20 or sooner.
  • If the requestor is not satisfied with the response, they can request an Internal Review, they have 40 working days to this.
  • Internal Review are conducted by the Information Governance Team within 20 working days of receipt.

The FOI Module system will generate reminders to officers who are assigned as contributors and senior managers who are assigned as approvers.

Where an officer fails to respond or delays the response, the matter will be referred to their Assistant Director and or Executive Director.

Please refer to Appendix B for a view of the process flow.

8. Internal Review Procedure

If the requestor is unhappy with the way in which their request has been handled, the Internal Review will be received by the Customer Relations Team who will forward to the Information Governance Team to carry out the review.

A request for an internal review should be submitted within 40 days of receipt of the response by the requestor. The requestor should specify why they do not agree with the initial response and what factors they would like to be considered as part of the review.

The Information Governance Team will acknowledge receipt of the Internal Review within 3 working days of receipt.

The request for review will be dealt with within 20 working days of receipt by the Information Governance Team. If the review will take longer to conduct, the requestor will be informed as to why and when to expect a response.

If the requestor remains dissatisfied with the handling of their request or complaint, they have a right to appeal to the Information Commissioners Office.

9. Further information

Any person reading this Policy requiring further information or assistance is invited to contact the Data Protection Officer or the Information Governance Team – IGTeam@reading.gov.uk.

Appendix A – exemptions

SectionExemption
12Exceeding 18 hours to collate the information requested
21Information already reasonably accessible
22Information intended for future publications
30 & 31Information relating to investigations and prejudice to law enforcement
32Court records
35 & 36Information relating to government policy and prejudice to the effective conduct of public affairs
38Endangering health and safety
40(1)Personal information of the requestor
40(2)Personal information of third parties
41Confidentiality
43Trade secrets and prejudice to commercial interests

Appendix B – process flow

FOI logged by customer via the RBC website or by Customer Relations Team (CRT) on behalf of the customer on to the FOI system.

Day 1 – An acknowledgment is generated by the system on the day the request is logged.

Day 1/2 – CRT will triage the request and where possible direct the customer to published data on the website or apply an exemption and reject the response.

Day 1/2 – CRT will send the request to the named responding officer of service or services, requesting the contribution/answers to the request by day 10.

Day 2/3 – Responding officer to review the FOI, if they need advice or clarification email CRT asap via FOI.CRT@reading.gov.uk.              

If the responding officer is not the correct person to answer the question, return the FOI request to CRT or reassign the case to the officer who is best placed to respond, this must be done via the system.

Day 5/6 – Reminder sent to responding officer to complete the contribution by day 10

Day 9 – Reminder sent to responding officer to complete the contribution by day 10

Day 10 – Contribution/ answers to request to be sent to CRT

Day 11 – CRT to prepare draft response

Day 11 – CRT send draft response to AD responsible for the service

Day 13– AD to review draft response

Day 14 – AD to approve the draft response and return it to CRT via the system

Day 15 – 20 – CRT to despatch final response via email and/or letter and add to disclosure log.

Day 15 – EA Team to remind officers to provide the answers or remind the ADs to sign off the request, as appropriate.

Where AD rejects the draft response:

Day 13 – AD to reject the draft response with comments and return to CRT via the system

Day 14 – CRT to review rejected draft response and request further information/corrections from the service.

Day 15-16 – Service to send revised answers to CRT via the system

Day 16 – 17 – CRT to amend the draft response and reallocate to AD via the system

Day 18 – AD to review revised draft response

Day 19 – 20 – CRT to despatch final response via email and/or letter and publish to disclosure log.