FoI and lessons for records management
Freedom of Information (FoI) requests have recently been in the news, as many UK Universities have received a request for information from Luke Steele, an animal rights activist based in Yorkshire.
However, in the last month there has been a more interesting development relating to another FoI request, made by the British Union for the Abolition of Vivisection (BUAV).
In response to the developments UAR is recommending that universities review their records management policies for project licences. We recommend that universities clarify who holds project licences, and formalise what happens to project licences when they expire, or when the holder leaves a university.
BUAV's request was made to a University in June 2008, and was for the content of certain project licences. The licences were withheld by the University, who cited a number of statutory exemptions as reasons why the information should not be disclosed.
After an appeal by BUAV, the Information Commissioner ruled in favour of the University this March, stating that the application of certain exemptions contained within the Freedom of Information Act (FoIA) was correct.
The main case made by the University was that its project licences are not held by the University, but by the Named Veterinary Surgeon (NVS). Because the NVS holds these licences as part of his/her function under the Animals (Scientific Procedures) Act and not as part of the University, the information is not technically held by the University itself and therefore does not fall within the scope of the FoI request.
The Commissioner understood that the University could not be sure who held the licences (or copies of the licences) at the time of the request. He noted that the University lacked a record management policy for project licences.
Of the two licences, one had expired and the other was active at the time of the request. The University was apparently not sure of the location of the expired licence, and had no record of its destruction. The NVS held the active licence; however when questioned by the Commissioner, the Project Licence holder was unsure whether he/she also had a copy at the time of the request.
Due to the ‘imprecise nature of the University's arguments' the Commissioner had to apply a balance of probability to determine how likely it was that the NVS was the sole holder of these documents at the time of the request. He was eventually satisfied that this was likely to be the case, and his final ruling was in favour of the University.
The University additionally argued that the so-called "confidentiality clause", namely section 24 of the Animals (Scientific Procedures) Act 1986, applied to the NVS, therefore preventing release of the information in the project licences. The information Commissioner likewise accepted that this exemption was valid.
The Commissioner's ruling is subject to appeal and may not be the final outcome. However, this case highlights the importance of document management policies. Good records management ensures that Universities can be sure of the location of a document at any one time and will therefore reduce the time it takes to respond to enquiries such as FoI requests.
To read more about FoI please see our new FoI pages.
To read more about specific exemptions and rulings by the Commissioner please see this briefing pdf.