Freedom of Information exemptions
This information is intended to be a high level look at the FOI exemptions that might affect requests for information to the County Council.
Information available to applicant by other means
If the information is already easily available (as a matter of fact) for free or at a cost to the applicant then we can refer the person to that source and need not deal with the request as a formal FOI request. If the information is readily accessible to the public then we can presume that it is accessible to specific applicants unless they tell us otherwise. We may need to make special provision for them and may have to deal with their request through our formal FOI process.
For example, if the information is included in our Publication Scheme on our website. We can simply refer the applicant to the information.
Considerations required to reach a decision
We have a duty to provide advice and assistance to people making requests. Letters referring customers to other organisations should be drafted in line with our FOI letter templates.
Documents that are available by law for inspection are not covered by this exemption unless they are in a class of documents referred to in the Publication Scheme.
We should be sensitive to the mobility, reading and language needs of our customers. It is possible to provide Braille, audio tape and translations of information. This should be considered on a case by case basis.
We are allowed to refuse a request where the cost of compliance exceeds an appropriate limit. The appropriate limit is £450 which is equivalent to two and half days searching and collating the information. This is calculated using a £22.50 hourly rate.
Information intended for future publication
This exemption is all about timing. If the information requested is due to be made public at some later date, we should explain how and when this will happen and how the customer will be able to get hold of it. However, we will need to decide if it is in the public interest to release this information to them now before we can decide to refuse the request for disclosure of the information.
Public interest decisions are taken by three senior officers. Please speak to your relevant Departmental FOI specialist if in doubt about this.
Health and Safety
We must not provide information if that could threaten the health or safety of any individual. But the public interest in releasing the information must be considered before access is refused.
Information concerning the environment
This is exempt only because it should be processed under the Environmental Information Regulations and not FOI.
For example, information about noise or air pollution, planning for new buildings or roads or sites of scientific or biological interest.
Any person who asks for personal information about themselves is making a request for ‘subject access’ under Data Protection law and the request must be automatically treated as such and not an FOI request.
Where someone makes a request for information about someone else (usually called a “third party”) then there is an exemption if the release of the information would breach any of the Data Protection Principles.
Information provided in confidence
The government in a Code of Practice for all public authorities has said that information should not normally be accepted in confidence. This is because it defeats the objectives of openness and transparency which FOI seeks to promote. However, it is accepted that we may accept it if the information would not otherwise be provided and it is necessary for our purposes. Information that is accepted in confidence will have to be justified to the Information Commissioner’s Office if we are challenged about not disclosing it.
“Trade secrets” are protected from disclosure absolutely. We might however have to say whether we hold them or not if asked.
Other Information may be withheld from disclosure where its disclosure would prejudice the commercial interests of either the Council or another person (in the legal sense so including a company, other authority, individual or other legal entity) we are in business with. However the public interest must be considered before anything is withheld.
Investigations and proceedings
Information about any criminal investigations or proceedings we are conducting can be withheld, if disclosure could affect them. This extends to information that has been gathered and may be used in prosecutions and to information about our internal procedures. Any information that if disclosed would prejudice the prevention or detection of crime or the collection of taxes is also exempt but in all cases we must consider the public interest.
Records from the County or other Courts are exempt as are notices issued to the County Council by the Courts.
Information provided by a lawyer when a legal case is being considered or legal advice is being taken may be withheld but only if it is likely that the information would be covered by ‘legal privilege’ in a court of law. However, this exemption is also subject to a public interest test.
Prohibited by law
We are prohibited by law from disclosing information if the disclosure would be illegal.
For example, adoption records may not be disclosed. A Court may order that specific information must be kept secret.
Public Interest test
This is effectively an override to some of the exemptions. Even though an exemption applies to information we may decide to release it anyway where the public interest in disclosure outweighs the reasons for not disclosing.
Public interest decisions will be taken by three senior officers who will have to balance such issues as promoting understanding of issues of the day, helping accountability and transparency in decisions taken by the Council and the spending of public money with for example the commercial interests of a company or individual.