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Universities offered guidance on FOI

There are ways for universities to refuse complying with expensive or burdensome Freedom of Information requests, a guidance document by the Information Commissioner’s Office has said.

The guidance, published on 26 September, was put together following recommendations in the House of Commons Science and Technology Committee’s report on the disclosure of data about climate change involving the University of East Anglia.

The ICO says that the document aims to increase researchers’ understanding of freedom of information legislation and to “help practitioners to comply with their legal obligations”.

The document explains that universities can refuse to disclose data under the act in cases where it is particularly expensive, burdensome or not in the public interest.

For example, there are exceptions to dealing with requests that disrupt a public authority’s “ability to perform their core functions” or appear to be part of an intention to disrupt or attack the public authority’s performance.

Requests that cost more than £450 for a university to undertake can also be refused.

The report emphasises that universities have the right to withhold certain commercially sensitive information. For example, the exception can be invoked if a university would be taken to court by a collaborator over disclosure of the information.

“Safe space” can be applied when “arguments are about the need for a ‘safe space’ to formulate policy, debate ‘live’ issues, and reach decisions without being hindered by external comment and/or media involvement”, says the ICO.

Other exceptions cover the disclosure of data intended for future publication and data giving rise to “chilling effects”.

The guidance emphasises that information held on personal email accounts is subject to FOI requests if it is related to public authority business.

“When searching for information in response to requests, staff should consider if it is appropriate to ask colleagues if information is held in a personal email account. The ICO recommends that official work is stored on properly secure networks rather than personal email accounts,” reads the document.

The ICO says university employees need to be better at managing and organising their information effectively and urges universities to develop specific, local guidelines for staff.