What does it mean to “comply” with an FOI request? This would appear to be a rather arid question, but when the provisions of section 14(2) of the Freedom of Information Act 2000 (FOIA) come into play, it is not perhaps as unambiguous as one might think.
Section 14(2) provides that
Where a public authority has previously complied with a request for information which was made by any person, it is not obliged to comply with a subsequent identical or substantially similar request from that person unless a reasonable interval has elapsed between compliance with the previous request and the making of the current request [emphasis added]
I confess that, until recently, as both a practitioner and an observer, I had never given this too much thought: surely a public authority complies with a request by complying with its general obligations under FOIA? Namely, confirming whether requested information is held, and, where it is, either communicating it to the requester or providing a refusal notice, while at the same time providing appropriate advice and assistance.
However, it appears (and apologies to anyone who’s known this for ages – I didn’t) that the Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) take a different view on section 14(2). Their approach, reflected in guidance, is that for the purposes of section 14(2) at least, a public authority has only previously complied with a request when it has either disclosed the information, or confirmed that it is not held:
A public authority may only apply Section 14(2) where it has either;
– previously provided the same requester with the information in response to an earlier FOIA request; or
– previously confirmed the information is not held in response to an earlier FOIA request from the same requester.
If neither of these conditions applies then the public authority must deal with the request in the normal manner.
So, if the authority has previously refused to disclose information, on the valid basis of the application of an exemption or exemptions, it cannot refuse to deal with a subsequent identical request, and it must (one assumes, and unless circumstances have changed) issue a fresh, identical, refusal notice.
This approach is also reflected in a recent decision notice relating to a request to the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) for the names of charities and companies who have given placements to Mandatory Work Activity or Help to Work participants. DWP had replied to a previous almost identical request, refusing to disclose the information on the basis of the exemptions at section 29(1)(a), 29(1)(b), 36(2)(c) and 43(2) of FOIA. This time, they refused to reply to the request citing section section 14(2). Not on, said ICO:
the DWP can only rely on section 14(2) if, inter alia, it had previously complied with the same or substantially similar request by supplying the requested information to the complainant or confirming it was not held
As the previous request had resulted in the applications of exemptions to refuse disclosure, section 14(2) was not engaged. This was despite the fact that – as DWP pointed out – a previous ICO decision notice had actually said that its position was that
the term ‘previously complied with a request for information’ refers to whether an authority has responded to the previous requests by either providing information or by issuing a refusal notice (emphasis added)
ICO explained this discrepancy by saying first, they were not bound by previous decisions, and second, that the earlier decision was “erroneous” and contrary to their own guidance.
I suspect the ICO are drawing a distinction between the concepts of “complying with a request” (i.e. fulfilling it) and “complying with FOIA obligations”. and I’m not completely sure I’m in disagreement with the ICO’s settled position. But I think I am, if only because, followed to its logical extension, we would be saying that a public authority has not “complied” with any request for information, if it has validly applied exemptions and refused to disclose the information. This lacks logic: it will be interesting to see if DWP appeal.
The views in this post (and indeed all posts on this blog) are my personal ones, and do not represent the views of any organisation I am involved with..