St Albans Council are one of an increasing number of public bodies to complain about Freedom of Information requests. In calculating the cost to the body of a quarter of a million pounds every year, they said that over one in ten requests come from the Metropolitan Police.
But Tim Turner was skeptical. So he asked how many of the police requests actually mentioned FOI. They avoided the question:
“St Albans drew my attention to a section on the Information Commissioner’s website which says that any request for information that is plainly not an EIR or a subject access request should be treated as an FOI.”
The implication being that routine requests for information from other public bodies may be being classified as ‘FOI’ as a way of inflating costs and supporting the case against it – even where they would previously just be routine.
Turner then asked specifically how many of those police requests were made under the Data Protection Act:
“They admitted that all of them were“.
The council might have treated those requests as FOI and formally declined them before treating them as Data Protection Act requests. “But,” says Turner, “I bet that they didn’t.”
Even had they done so – or if any council did so – it would have been merely a bureaucratic sleight of hand, at a cost to the public purse. As Turner explains:
“The police were using the Data Protection Act for what the ICO’s Data Sharing Code of Practice calls a ‘disclosure’, and what is more commonly (though less accurately) known as a data sharing request. They were asking not that the data be disclosed under FOI, but that it be disclosed one data controller to another, for the purposes of conducting a criminal investigation. The idea that anyone could think that this was an FOI request is nonsense.”
This means that St Albans’ figure for FOI costs is wrong, by at least 13%. But it also suggests that other non-FOI costs may have been lumped in as well. In short, we can’t trust the figure.
And it sheds a particular light on similar stories from other public bodies. When Staffordshire Council pulled a similar stunt earlier this year they included police forces, other councils (classified as “commercial”), and central government.
Likewise Avon and Somerset Police – whose average FOI costs more than the legal maximum – are likely to receive many requests that fall under the Data Protection Act (for example individuals wanting documentation relating to their arrest).
So if you come across one of these stories it’s worth asking for a more detailed breakdown of exactly what types of request they were, how many were explicitly made under FOI, and how many were eventually handled under the Data Protection Act.
The irony is that this only adds further support to the argument in favour of FOI: the information has only come to light because Tim Turner was able to ask for it through… an FOI request.