ICO Gets Tough On Information Access Laws

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The Information Commissioner’s Office has issued its first demand under the Freedom of Information Act

The University of East Anglia (UEA) has been asked to sign a commitment to improve the way it responds to Freedom of Information (FoI) requests.

This is the first time the Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) has issued such as demand under the FoI Act.

Previous interventions by the ICO have been related to remedial actions following data protection breaches.

It Never Rains But It Pours

The ICO’s request to the university said, “In November 2009 data, purported to have originated from the University of East Anglia’s Climate Research Unit (CRU), was placed in the public domain. The data consisted of hundreds of emails, some of which discussed technical and routine aspects of climate research. The tone and content of a number of the emails could be interpreted as demonstrating a reluctance to respond to requests for information in an open and transparent way.”

Reading between the lines, it would appear that the UEA’s response to the request for information was to send a stack of unsorted emails for the requester to sift through, rather than a statement about the CRU’s involvement in ongoing climate research.

On investigation, the ICO said that it felt the university had the relevant policies and procedures in place, but that staff still needed training in how to respond to FoI requests. UEA will also have to review its current storage and retrieval systems for its emails. The implication is that a searchable, centralised storage system is required rather than “localised procedures”.

“This is the first occasion on which we have sought formal undertakings to secure compliance with the Freedom of Information Act. Our tougher enforcement strategy makes it clear that public authorities will face similar action if they fall short of their responsibilities to promote openness and transparency,” said commissioner Christopher Graham.

Although this is the first formal reprimand given, the ICO has intervened several times in the past year by issuing “practice recommendations” for FoI handling to establishments such as the Ministry of Defence, the National Offender Management Service, the Department for Communities and Local Government, and the UK Borders Agency.

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