Internal, open access

FOI/EIR FAQs for staff

 

 

 

What is freedom of information?

The freedom of information legislation, which comprises the Freedom of Information (FOI) Act 2000 and the Environmental Information Regulations (EIRs) 2004

  • Gives everyone both in and outside the University a right of access to information held by the University of Reading
  • Covers all digital and paper records and information held by the University whether current or archived

There are some situations where information is not required to be released and should not be released.

The University of Reading fully supports this increased public access to information; however FOI and the EIRs are not intended to mean that all University information may now be divulged by you. Reasons including personal data, confidentiality, and the commercial interests of the University may still mean that some information is not and should not be released. 

 
What is "Environmental Information"?

As a general guide, "Environmental information" can be summarised as:

  • the state of the elements of the environment, such as air and atmosphere, water, soil, land, landscape and natural sites and the interaction between these elements
  • factors such as substances, energy, noise, radiation or waste affecting or likely to affect the elements of the environment
  • measures such as policies, legislation, plans, programmes, environmental agreements, and activities affecting or likely to affect or protect the elements of the environment
  • reports on the implementation of environmental legislation
  • cost-benefit and other economic analyses and assumptions used within the framework of environmental measures and activities
  • the state of human health and safety, including the contamination of the food chain, conditions of human life, cultural sites and built structures in as much as they are or may be affected by the state of the elements of the environment

The formal definition of "Environmental Information" is given in Part 1 of the Environmental Information Regulations 2004.

Environmental information for the University of Reading is given in the section Environmental information in the publication scheme.

 
Do I have to treat EIR requests differently to FOI requests?

There are many similarities between the two regimes, including the timescales for responding to a request.

However, the EIRs do not specify that requests must be in writing, which means that telephone requests on environmental matters will also be valid (although in practice it is advisable to make a written record of any verbal requests received).

There are some differences in the way that information that is not disclosed is dealt with. FOI has a series of exemptions that can be applied, while the EIRs have a series of exceptions. There are also some differences in the way that extremely time-consuming requests are dealt with. If you think that a request for information that you have received falls into any of these categories, contact the IMPS Office at the earliest opportunity to ensure that the request is dealt with correctly under the appropriate regime.

 
What difference does FOI/EIR make to me?

As an employee of the University you need to be aware of the freedom of information legislation and be prepared to act quickly if you receive a request for information. You should also be aware that all University records, including the records you hold both on campus or remotely, such as at home, may potentially be disclosed to the general public. See the leaflet FOIA: Essential Information for all staff (PDF-146KB) for further details.

 

What is an information request?
There is a distinction between requests and routine correspondence. Requests for information that can be treated as business as usual - such as requests for recruitment brochures, leaflets, press releases and the text of public speeches - should be provided as routine correspondence, without being treated as an FOI/EIR request. Requests that are not for recorded information, but instead ask questions, such as "please explain your policy on x" or "please explain your decision to do y" are not requests for recorded information and therefore should also be treated as routine correspondence. But, as a "rule of thumb":
  • If any information requested is held and needs to be actively considered then the request should be formally treated as a request for information.
  • If it seems likely that the requested information cannot be disclosed, it should be formally recorded as a request for information. Inform the IMPS Office as soon as you can.
 
What training should I do?

All staff should undertake the Mandatory Online Courses, which include the Information Compliance modules. For further training the IMPS office staff run a series of programmes designed to inform and train staff on issues relating to information management and compliance. See People Development for further details and information on how to sign up.

  

Who within the University can advise me on FOI/EIR issues?

Every School or Service has an IMPS Contact who has been trained to manage and direct queries and enquiries relating to the Freedom of Information Act (FOI), the Data Protection Act (DPA) and any other relevant information-related legislation. If your IMPS Contact is unable to help you can contact the IMPS Office for advice. A list showing the name of the IMPS Contact for each unit is available with their contact details to help you to find your local IMPS Contact. 

  
What do I need to know if someone requests information from me about the University or about any other information we hold here?
  • Requests for information that we hold need to be made in writing, e.g. an email or a letter. Requests for environmental information may be made by phone.
  • The person requesting the information does not need to tell you it is being made under FOI or under the EIRs. All they need to do is to request the information.
  • You are not entitled to know why they want the information or to check whether the person requesting it is genuine.
  • A request for information may come to any part of the University from anywhere in the world.
  • A request may come via Twitter. (See the Twitter FAQ below).
  • By law, the request for information must be answered within 20 working days.

  

What should I do when I receive a request for information and do I need to recognise it as an FOI or EIRs request?

How you handle the request depends on the nature of it and your role in the University.

If you routinely give out certain information to the public, staff and students, continue to give out this information as before.

If you receive a request for information which:

      • mentions Freedom of Information or the EIRs OR
      • is not information you already routinely provide in the course of your work, OR
      • you are unsure of, OR
      • is unusual or non-routine, OR
      • asks for information that the University holds

pass the request immediately to the IMPS Office.

When you are in doubt about any request for information you receive please contact the IMPS Office.

   

Who is responsible for answering a request?

The University has a central office for dealing with FOI queries and FOI requests, the Information Management and Policies Services (IMPS) Office.

The IMPS Office will record and respond to non-routine requests for information by processing them as FOI requests. The IMPS Office will require the assistance of the appropriate members of staff in:

(a) determining whether the information is held by the University;

(b) locating the information (or documents which may contain the information);

(c) retrieving the information (or a document which may contain the information); and

(d) extracting the information from documents containing it.  

  

As a researcher, what do I need to know if someone requests my research data from me?

In addition to the points raised in the previous FAQs for all members of staff, as a researcher you need to know that information requested in a FOI or EIR request could include your research data. If requested, the information must be provided unless an exemption or exception allows the University not to disclose it.

Some useful guidance to researchers can be found in the JISC document FOI & Research Data: Researchers' Questions and Answers.

As with all requests for information, unless they are "business as usual" type requests, you should inform the IMPS Office about the request as soon as possible to ensure that the necessary procedures are followed.

  

As a personal tutor, how does the FOI Act affect me?

Freedom of Information issues that affect you as a tutor are described in detail in the Data protection and Freedom of Information section of the Personal Tutor's Handbook. This includes advice on keeping records and dealing with enquiries from third parties. 

  

What if we do not hold the information?

It is not necessary to create new information in order to answer a request, even if this can be easily done from other information that is held.

However, the University should provide the requestor with advice and assistance so that they may understand what information is held and could be requested. In these cases, pass the request immediately to the IMPS Office.

When you are in doubt about any request for information you receive please contact the IMPS Office.

  
Are people entitled to request specific documents?

The legislation gives an entitlement to information rather than documents, although the information requested will often consist of a whole document.

Note that, although most information is held in the form of documents, it is also necessary to consider other media such as video tapes, microfiche or photographs, which contain information.

It is not necessary to create new information in order to answer a request, even if this can be easily done from other information that is held. However, the University is obliged to provide the requestor with advice and assistance so that they may understand what information is held and could be requested.

  

What do I do if I feel that the requested information should not be disclosed?

Do not wilfully destroy or alter any original documents that are the subject of a request. This is a criminal offence for the individual responsible (not the University); it carries a potential fine of up to £5,000. Any document for destruction must be handled in accordance with the University's Records Management arrangements. If a document that has been requested is due for destruction according to the university's record retention schedule it can be destroyed but it would be advisable to check this with the IMPS office before carrying out the destruction.

It is important that you do not withhold information without clear justification under one or more of the exemptions or exceptions allowed by the legislation. Unjustified withholding will only undermine the reputation of the University in the eyes of the public and the Information Commissioner.

The most common reasons why information can be withheld under FOI are:

  • The information contains personal data
  • The information would harm the commercial interests of the University
  • Disclosure of the information would be likely to endanger health and safety of any individual
  • The information was obtained from another where disclosure would be an actionable breach of confidence
  • The information is accessible to the applicant by other means
  • The information is intended for future publication
  • The information is covered by legal professional privilege

If you are unsure about whether certain information should be disclosed, consult the IMPS Office at the earliest opportunity to discuss your concerns. The IMPS Office will deal with any requests that may need to invoke the use of exemptions/exceptions.

  

Can a request be made via Twitter?

The Information Commissioner (IC) has advised that universities should be prepared to receive and respond to freedom of information (FOI) requests made through official University-managed Twitter accounts in the same way as they would an email or letter.

University staff using Twitter as an official communications tool should be aware that FOI requests can be received by this channel. Valid requests could be received by direct messages or by the @mentions facility whereby the owner can check for references to the University.

The position of personal Twitter accounts, ie staff with individual accounts registered under a University email address, is unclear. It is possible that requests to these accounts could be considered valid. Until we have further guidance from the Information Commissioner staff are advised to err on the side of caution and simply follow the procedure set out below.

Using Twitter to submit valid FOI requests does pose challenges. Firstly, Twitter messages only have a standard 140 character limit which can make both framing a request and responses difficult. Secondly, to be a valid FOI request there should be a name and address for correspondence, which arguably if rigidly enforced could invalidate some requests as individuals often do not use their real names. Thirdly, official Twitter accounts may not be regularly monitored for requests making them an unreliable method of asking for information under FOI.

However despite the challenges that this medium poses, colleagues should simply follow the established procedures when dealing with requests for information received via any medium:

  • if the request specifically mentions any of the access to information regimes, such as FOI, Environmental Information Regulations (EIR) or Data Protection, OR
  • if the request asks for information that the University 'holds', OR
  • if the request asks for non-routine or sensitive information,

refer the message to the IMPS Office.


 

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