POLICY ON DISCLOSURE OF INFORMATION
(ENCOMPASSING THE FREEDOM OF INFORMATION ACT 2000)
Ridgeway High School is committed to the Freedom of Information Act 2000 and to the principles of accountability and the general right of access to information, subject to legal exemptions. This policy outlines our response to the Act and a framework for managing requests.
The FoI Act joins the Data Protection Act as legislation under which anyone is entitled to request information from the school.
Requests for personal data are still covered by the Data Protection ActV. (DPA). Individuals can request to see what information the school holds about them. This is known as a Subject Access Request, and must be dealt with accordingly, (see data protection act policy).
Requests for information about anything relating to the environment – such as air, water, land, the natural world or the built environment and any factor or measure affecting these – are covered by the Environmental Information Regulations (EIR). They also cover issues relating to Health and Safety. For example queries about chemicals used in the school or on school land, phone masts, car parks etc. would all be covered by the EIR. Requests under EIR are dealt with in the same way as those under FoIA, but unlike FoIA requests, they do not need to be written and can be verbal.
If any element of a request to the school includes personal or environmental information, these elements must be dealt with under DPA or EIR. Any other information is a request under FoIA, and must be dealt with accordingly.
- To ensure that all members of staff at Ridgeway High School are aware of their legal responsibilities with regard to the release of data to third parties.
- To ensure that all requests for personal data are dealt with under the provisions of the FoIA
Obligations and Duties
The school recognises its duty to
- provide advice and assistance to anyone requesting information
- tell enquirers whether or not we hold the information they are requesting (the duty to confirm or deny), and provide access to the information we hold in accordance with the procedures laid down in Appendix 1.
Ridgeway High School has adopted the Model Publication Scheme for Schools approved by the Information Commissioner.
Dealing with Requests
- We will respond to all requests in accordance with the procedures laid down in Appendix 1.
- We will ensure that all staff are aware of the procedures
Certain information is subject to either absolute or qualified exemptions. The exemptions are listed in Appendix 2.
When we wish to apply a qualified exemption to a request, we will invoke the public interest test procedures to determine if public interest in applying the exemption outweighs the public interest in disclosing the information.
We will maintain a register of requests where we have refused to supply information and the reasons for the refusal. The register will be retained for 5 years.
Public Interest Test
Unless it is in the public interest to withhold information, it has to be released. We will apply the Public Interest Test before any qualified exemptions are applied.
For information on applying the Public Interest Test see Appendix 3.
We reserve the right to refuse to supply information where the cost of doing so exceeds the statutory maximum, currently £450.
FoIA requests are handled by a nominated member of the SLT Ms L Williams
Any comments or complaints will be dealt with through the school’s normal complaints procedure.
Appendix 2 Exemptions to Release of Information
- Although decisions on disclosure should be made on a presumption of openness, the FOI Act recognises the need to preserve confidentiality and protect sensitive material in some circumstances.
- You cannot withhold information in response to a valid request UNLESS one of the following applies:-
- an exemption to disclosure, or
- the information sought is not held, or
- the request is considered vexatious or repeated or
- the cost of compliance exceeds the threshold (£450)
Absolute: where there is no requirement to confirm or deny that the information is held, disclose the information or consider the public interest; and
Qualified: where, even if an exemption applies, there is a duty to consider the public interest in disclosing information
What are the Absolute Exemptions?
- There are 8 absolute exemptions listed in the Act. Even where an absolute exemption applies:-
- it does not mean that you can’t disclose in all cases; it means that disclosure is not required by the Act. A decision could be taken to ignore the exemption and release the information taking into account all the facts of the case
- there is still a legal obligation to provide reasonable advice and assistance to the enquirer
Information accessible to the enquirer by other means
If information is reasonably accessible to the applicant by another route than the Act, it is exempt information. This is the case even if the enquirer would have to pay for the information under that alternative route. This exemption includes cases where you are required to give information under other legislation, or where the information is available via the Publication Scheme.
This is exempt under the Act because it is covered by the Data Protection Act. Consult your existing school Data Protection guidance.
Information provided in confidence
This relates to information obtained from a person if its disclosure would constitute a breach of confidence actionable by that, or another, person.
Prohibitions on disclosure
Information is exempt where its disclosure is prohibited under any other legislation by order of a court or where it would constitute a contempt of court.
What are the Qualified Exemptions?
With qualified exemptions, even if it is decided that an exemption applies, there is a duty to consider the public interest in confirming or denying that the information exists and in disclosing information.
Information intended for future publication
If at the time the request was made, information is held with a view to publication, then it is exempt from disclosure if it is reasonable that it should not be disclosed until the intended date of publication. This could apply for instance to statistics published at set intervals, for example annually or where information is incomplete and it would be inappropriate to publish prematurely. Remember, you still have a legal duty to provide reasonable advice and assistance.
Investigations and proceedings conducted by public authorities
Information is exempt if it has at any time been held by the school for the purposes of criminal investigations or proceedings, such as determining whether a person should be charged with an offence or whether a charged person is guilty, or investigations which may lead to a decision to institute criminal proceedings. The duty to confirm or deny does not apply to such information.
Information which is not exempt under Section 30 Investigations and Proceedings, may be exempt under this exemption in the event that disclosure would, or would be likely to, prejudice the following among others:-
- the prevention or detection of crime
- the apprehension or prosecution of offenders
- the administration of justice
- the exercise of functions such as ascertaining if a person has broken the law, is responsible for improper conduct, whether circumstances justify regulatory action, ascertaining a person’s fitness or competence in relation to their profession, ascertaining the cause of an accident or protecting or recovering charities or its properties
- any civil proceedings brought by or on behalf of the school which arise out of an investigation carried out for any of the purposes mentioned above.
Health and Safety
Information is exempt if its disclosure would or would be likely to endanger the safety or physical or mental health of any individual. The duty to confirm or deny does not arise where prejudice would result.
Appendix 3 Applying the Public Interest Test
- Having established that a qualified exemption(s) definitely applies to a particular case, you must then carry out a public interest test to identify if the public interest in applying the exemption outweighs the public interest in disclosing it. Therefore, unless it is in the public interest to withhold the information, it has to be released. Although precedent and a developed case law will play a part, individual circumstances will vary and each case will need to be considered on its own merits.
Carrying out the test
- It is worth noting that what is in the public interest is not necessarily the same as that which may be of interest to the public. It may be irrelevant that a matter may be the subject of public curiosity. In most cases it will be relatively straightforward to decide where the balance of the public interest in disclosure lies. However, there will inevitably be cases where the decision is a difficult one. Applying such a test depends to a high degree on objective judgement and a basic knowledge of the subject matter and its wider impact in the school and possibly wider. Factors that might be taken into account when weighing the public interest include:-
|For Disclosure||Against Disclosure|
|Is disclosure likely to increase access to information held by the school?||Is disclosure likely to distort public reporting or be misleading because it is incomplete?|
|Is disclosure likely to give the reasons for a decision or allow individuals to understand decisions affecting their lives or assist them in challenging those decisions?||Is premature disclosure likely to prejudice fair scrutiny, or release sensitive issues still on the internal agenda or evolving?|
|Is disclosure likely to improve the accountability and transparency of the school in the use of public funds and help to show that it obtains value for money?||Is disclosure likely to cause unnecessary public alarm or confusion?|
|Is disclosure likely to contribute to public debate and assist the understanding of existing or proposed policy?||Is disclosure likely to seriously jeopardise the school’s legal or contractual position?|
|Is disclosure likely to increase public participation in decision-making?||Is disclosure likely to infringe other legislation e.g. Data Protection Act?|
|Is disclosure likely to increase public participation in political processes in general?||Is disclosure likely to create a controversial precedent on the release of information or impair your ability to obtain information in the future?|
|Is disclosure likely to bring to light information affecting public safety?||Is disclosure likely to adversely affect the school’s proper functioning and discourage openness in expressing opinions?|
|Is disclosure likely to reduce further enquiries on the topic?||If a large amount of information on the topic has already been made available, would further disclosure shed any more light or serve any useful purpose?|
- Note also that:
- potential or actual embarrassment to, or loss of confidence in, the school, staff or governors is NOT a valid factor
- the fact that the information is technical, complex to understand and may be misunderstood may not of itself be a reason to withhold information
- the potential harm of releasing information will reduce over time and should be considered at the time the request is made rather than by reference to when the relevant decision was originally taken
- the balance of the public interest in disclosure cannot always be decided on the basis of whether the disclosure of particular information would cause harm, but on certain higher order considerations such as the need to preserve confidentiality of internal discussions
- a decision not to release information may be perverse i.e. would a decision to withhold information because it is not in the public interest to release it, itself result in harm to public safety, the environment or a third party?
- You will need to record the answers to these questions and the reasons for those answers. Deciding on the public interest is not simply a matter of adding up the number of relevant factors on each side. You need to decide how important each factor is in the circumstances and go on to make an overall assessment.
- Where the balance of the public interest lies in disclosure, the enquiry should be dealt with and the information required should be made available. Where the factors are equally-balanced, the decision should usually favour disclosure (but see 3rd bullet point above).
- After carrying out the public interest test if it is decided that the exemption should still apply, proceed to reply to the request.
There will be occasions when it has been decided that a qualified exemption applies but consideration of the public interest test may take longer. In such a case, you must contact the enquirer within 20 working days stating that a particular exemption applies, but including an estimate of the date by which a decision on the public interest test will be made. This should be within a “reasonable” time – in practice, it is recommended this decision is made and communicated within the 20 days but where not possible it is suggested that no more than 10 working days beyond the 20 days should be allowed.