Freedom of information provides a general right of access to information held by public bodies (called ‘public authorities’ in the UK and Scottish Freedom of Information Acts). The University is subject to the Freedom of Information (Scotland) Act 2002 (FoI(S)A).
Although some of the University’s activities could be classed as commercial, are funded by private partners or are in areas where universities are in direct competition with each other, all universities in Scotland are classed as public authorities for the purposes of FoI(S)A. This means that the University is subject to the full powers of the Act and that it must comply fully with the Act and requests for information from members of the public (known in the Act as ‘applicants’).
Yes. Once a request for information has been made the University is obliged to deal with that request appropriately (normally by providing the information requested to the person who asked for it). The University may choose not to disclose certain information where it has a justifiable reason to do so, but that justification must be based on one of the exemptions in FoI(S)A (see below).
The normal presumption in FoI(S)A is that once information has been requested, it will be disclosed.
To be a ‘valid’ request, the applicant must ask for information, provide a name and return address (which can be an email address) and make their request in a ‘verifiable format’. This is normally email, fax, letter etc, but can also be a voicemail on the University telephone system.
In practice, insisting on a verifiable format introduces extra complication to the University’s processes. If someone wishes to make a request in person or by telephone, write down their request, date it and action it as if it had come in by email, letter or other similar means.
No. All that a request needs to trigger the requirements of the Act is a name, a return address and a request for information. The applicant does not have to specify that they are making a freedom of information request, nor do they have to mention FoI(S)A.
No. The applicant can be anywhere in the world. Provided that they send a valid request, the requirements of FoI(S)A apply.
The University has 20 working days to respond to requests under FoI(S)A. This period begins when the request is received by the University, not when it gets to the person who may have the information, the University’s Records Manager or is otherwise actioned. It is therefore imperative that when you receive a request for information and are unsure of what to do with it you, at minimum, forward it to the Records Manager as soon as possible.
Yes, but only in very limited circumstances and for a nominal amount. If you feel that complying with an applicant’s request for information is going to be particularly costly please contact the University’s Records Manager who will assess whether a charge can be imposed, undertake the fees calculations required by the law and, where appropriate, issue a formal ‘fees notice’ to the person making the request.
Where a request is enormous it is possible that the cost of compliance could be deemed ‘excessive’. This determination is based on the same fees calculation mentioned above and will be made by the Records Manager. Please see below for more information on excessive cost.
FoI(S)A applies to all information held by public authorities, regardless of format. This means that any and all information pertinent to a request must be considered when developing the University’s response. It could be held in a physical file, on a computer, in an email, in a database, on a mobile device (text message, IM message etc), in correspondence, in formal minutes or papers, in drafts, in notebooks, on post-it notes stuck to something else and so on.
Notwithstanding the point in 2.9 that FoI(S)A applies to any and all information, if the University genuinely does not have the information being requested it does not have to create new information in order to satisfy an applicant’s request. If the University does not have the information, please let the Records Manager know and they will issue a formal notice to the applicant specifying that the information they seek is ‘not held’.
FoI(S)A contains a series of exemptions that can be used to prevent disclosure in specific circumstances. For example, if one person requests the personal information of another person it is unlikely that they will be given access to it. Other exemptions include situations where the release of information would result in a breach of confidentiality, damage commercial interests or prejudice law enforcement activities.
The application of exemptions is subject to various tests to ensure that they are not being used to deliberately and inappropriately prevent applicants exercising their rights under the Act. These tests include the identification of substantial prejudice to persons or organisations likely to arise from the release of information and a test to establish whether, notwithstanding any harm that could be caused, disclosure is in the public interest.
It is the University’s responsibility to ensure that, as far as possible, exemptions from disclosure are used properly, with due consideration of any necessary tests and that they are applied consistently throughout the institution. To that end, if you feel that it is inappropriate for the University to release information, please do not refuse the request yourself. Please contact the University’s Records Manager who will work through the process of refusal with you, draft a response compliant with the requirements of the law and seek approval for the refusal from the Secretary of the University where appropriate.
No. Please see 2.11 above and contact the University’s Records Manager. There are circumstances where it is legitimate for the University to withhold information, but to protect you and the institution such refusals must be managed according the requirements of the law.
The University routinely destroys information where it no longer serves any useful purpose and has no historical significance (in which case it would be transferred to the University Archive). The Freedom of Information (Scotland) Act does not prevent such normal administrative processes from continuing. However, to destroy information after it has been requested by an applicant is a criminal offence. If you are responsible for the destruction of information to prevent its release you can be held personally liable for that decision. As a result, when information is destroyed it is sensible to document that process so that, should it be requested, you and the University can demonstrate that the destruction was properly authorised and that it was undertaken prior to any request being made.
The Act does have a provision that allows the refusal a request where the cost of compliance would be excessive, subject to a series of strict parameters to prevent the abuse of this clause by public authorities. If you feel that a request is so vast that the cost of responding to it would be excessive please contact the University’s Records Manager who will work through the costing process with you to establish whether the request can be refused on these grounds.
Please note that the Act requires the University to ‘advise and assist’ an applicant to identify the information they want and to make a request that falls within the fees ceiling. As such an initial request may be refused, but the University is likely to have to provide some of the information requested by the applicant. The rules on ‘excessive cost’ should not be viewed as a way of avoiding a request altogether.
Freedom of information is, broadly, applicant blind insofar as all a request needs to be valid is a name and a return address. Rudeness on the part of the applicant or potential embarrassment to the University (or to individuals) are not reasons to refuse requests.
However, where someone is asking for the same information repeatedly, is using the legislation to harass or bully or is using the legislation to try and obstruct the normal business of the University (for example making hundreds of requests at the same time to stop a section of the University functioning by making them deal with unreasonable numbers of requests) then there are mechanisms within the Act that can be used. Please contact the Records Manager for further advice in any of these situations.
The University does receive requests for information whilst disciplinary matters, grievances, employment tribunals or other formal University processes are ongoing. The fact that something else is happening alongside the request for information does not mean that the request should not be answered. It is important in situations like this that one process does not prejudice another, so the University’s normal response would be to deal with the request for information via the Records Manager outwith the framework provided by other University processes.
In circumstances where other dialogues or processes are ongoing, it is normal for the Records Manager to deal with the response to the request for information, even if you would normally release the information in the course of your duties.
Generally, the University responds to requests for information on the assumption that the applicant is using their own name. Although it is permissible to challenge applicants where the name is palpably a false one, and in certain circumstances the University may choose to do so, often it is better to simply deal with the request at face value during the initial response, only worrying about the true identity of the applicant at a later stage.
You can ask and sometimes it is helpful to do so to make sure that the information provided to the applicant is what they expect and will be useful to them. However, the applicant is not obliged to answer these questions decisions about the release of information are not normally based on the applicant’s reasons for making a request or how they intend to use the information.
The University is obliged by the Act to provide as much as help to the applicant as they need to access the information they are seeking.
The business of the University is predicated on the collection, management and appropriate disclosure of information and requests for information are a common part of normal operations. If someone requests information that you would normally provide, please just do so. The only requirement is that you respond within 20 working days.
However, if you receive a request for information and any of the following applies, please forward the request to the Records Manager (using email@example.com) as soon as possible:
- You feel that the information should not be disclosed
- You believe that the University should charge for the information
- You believe that the request for information is too large or too onerous
- You notice that the request mentions freedom of information specifically
- You do not have the information being requested, or you believe that the University does not have the information being requested
- You are unsure of the proper course of action
Yes, but if the release of that information would harm the University or ongoing research it is likely that the University would seek to defend a position of non-disclosure through the use of the exemptions in the Act. Where the request is for information of little or no sensitivity (for example a small set of handouts or PowerPoint slides containing no proprietary information etc), then it is likely that the information can be released.
The applicant must initially request that the University reviews its decision to withhold information and the University has a procedure it follows when this happens. Should the University decide that the exemption from disclosure was correct at the review stage, the applicant then has the right to appeal that decision to the Office of the Scottish Information Commissioner. The Scottish Information Commissioner has the power to order the release of information, but if the University feels, even at that stage, that disclosure is inappropriate it can challenge the decision of the Commissioner on a point of law in the Court of Session.
A publication scheme is something required under the Act that explains what information the University routinely places into the public domain in areas such as governance and financial management and provides instructions on how to access that information. The University of Dundee, in line with the rest of the HE sector in Scotland, uses a model publication scheme approved by the Scottish Information Commissioner.
If someone requests information routinely disclosed by the person who receives it (i.e. ‘business as usual' requests), they will normally respond to the applicant directly. Where a request is sent to the Records Manager and Information Compliance Officer or to firstname.lastname@example.org, or is forwarded to Records Management Services by a member of staff who doesn’t have the information sought or is unsure of how to respond, the University normally uses the following process:
1. Requests are circulated anonymously (i.e. information the identifies the applicant is removed) to members of staff who may have information or be able to offer guidance on where information may be located.
2. The responses from those members of staff are collated by the Records Manager and Information Compliance Officer (or nominee) and a draft response is prepared.
3. The draft response is circulated to those persons providing information and to appropriate senior managers for comment. Subsequent drafts are prepared and circulated as necessary. The applicant is not identified at this stage.
4. Once a response is agreed it is sent to the applicant with all relevant information attached/enclosed or with an explanation of why the University is unable to provide the information requested. The Secretary of the University and the Head of Culture and Information are copied into the final response which does identify the applicant. This ensures that the applicant knows that their request has been considered appropriately and minimises the risk associated with a single point of failure. The Director of Legal Services may also be copied into final responses where they have legal implications for the University.