Cleland Thom provides another of his useful roundups on ‘right to know’ laws in the UK. This time it’s the Environmental Information Regulations (EIR), a set of regulations which work in a similar way to the Freedom of Information Act, but specifically cover information about the environment.
The regulations aren’t just useful if you’re reporting on the environment – transport, energy and other issues all touch on the areas the EIR covers.
Now the Information Commissioner has issued guidelines on the regulations (PDF) for the first time. Cleland’s rundown of the basics goes as follows:
- The ‘default position’ is that authorities must disclose information if journalists ask for it.
- The regulations make it hard for an authority refuse a information request.
- Public authorities can release business information they hold – without the business’ knowledge or consent.
- Authorities cannot ask why a journalist wants information, or be obstructive or secretive because they know what they might do with it.
- The information must be accurate and up to date.
- They must respond in 20 working days.
- The media does not have automatic right to reproduce information they’re given. Check copyright first.
- Journalists can make requests by phone. But it’s best to provide written confirmation to ensure accuracy.
- Authorities cannot ‘neither confirm nor deny’ they have information, unless it’s to do with international relations, defence, national security or public safety
- Authorities can refuse a request if it is too general – but they should then ask for a more precise request.
- Authorities can refuse to hand over information when It involves personal data; is against the public interest; is unreasonable; release WILL (not might) have an adverse effect on the course of justice, or someone’s intellectual property rights; the information is incomplete, or not available at all.
To give Cleland Thom a deserved plug, he is a consultant and trainer in media law, and is good.
More guidelines on EIR in this article in Local Government Lawyer from September 2011.
Following up on our post about new FOI guidelines, Cleland Thom has compiled a list of excuses sometimes used by officials to refuse an FOI request, and how to use the guidelines to get past those. Some of the highlights:
- “Your request was sent to the wrong department.
WRONG: it just has to be sent to the authority concerned, not to any individual or department.
- “You haven’t told us which documents you want.
WRONG: the Act says you can ask for information. You don’t have to name specific documents. It’s up to the authority to find all the information you want. In fact, if you ask for specific documents, you may just get those, and miss other things.
- Sorry, but it’s not my job to help you.
WRONG: authorities have a legal duty to explain your rights and help you submit an FOIA request.
- My job’s just to provide information – not to answer questions or explain it.
WRONG: the guidelines tell staff: … ‘This doesn’t prevent you providing answers or explanations as well, as a matter of normal customer service’.
- “Sorry, we ignored your request because we couldn’t understand it.
WRONG: Staff can contact you and ask for clarification.
- “I’m not answering that – I don’t like your tone.
WRONG: Staff must ignore the tone of your request.
- “Sorry, but your request wasn’t clear enough. We didn’t deal with it.
WRONG: the authority should contact you ASAP to get clarification, and maybe offer help.
- “We don’t have this information – and I don’t know who does.
POSSIBLY: the authority will usually tell you if it does not hold the information you asked for. But it does not have to tell you who holds it, though they might point you to someone else if they know.
- “I can’t tell you whether or not we hold this information.
POSSIBLY: in some circumstances, an authority can issue a ‘neither confirm nor deny’ (NCND) response.
- “We can’t give you the information, and I’m not going to tell you if we hold it or not.
WRONG: staff should tell you if they hold information that they have refused to give you, but they don’t have to explain it. See 20 above, though.
- “We can’t give you this information – it’s full of errors.
WRONG: staff still have to give you the information, even if it contains inaccuracies or is out of date. But they should tell you, and may offer additional information to put it in context.
- “We can’t give you this, it’s marked for deletion.
WRONG: staff have been told it’s not good practice to continue with a scheduled deletion if someone has requested the information. It’s a criminal offence for them to delete information because it could create embarrassment or bad publicity.
- “Sorry, you can’t have this information in printed format.
WRONG: you can state format you want at the time you make your request.
- “I’m not going to help you – you’re a pain in the neck.
WRONG: Authorities can reject requests that are ‘vexatious’. But this applies to the request, not the person asking it. A request can be vexatious if:
- it creates too much work
- your tone or manner is discourteous
- the request is obsessive
- there’s no value in the request.”