PL&B FOI E-news, Issue 28

1. Tribunal orders release of staff names

A recent Tribunal decision clarifies the situation regarding a public authority’s position regarding the release of staff personal information under the FOIA. Organisations can withhold staff names only if the staff concerned are in junior posts (below B2 level), their names are not already publicly available in a Civil Service Year Book or similar, and they are not immediately responsible for the requested information. A clear and demonstrable threat to these individuals’ health and safety can constitute another reason for withholding staff information.

The request, made by a Guardian journalist, concerned names, job titles, work addresses, telephone numbers and e-mail addresses of Defence Export Services Organisation (DESO) staff. The DESO, which is part of Ministry of Defence, had indeed supplied a redacted copy of the Directory, which included the titles of the posts held, but no names or contact information. The name of the Head of the DESO was provided.

The DESO relied in its decision on FOIA section 40 (personal data exemption) as well as sections 44 and 38. Section 38 provides that information is exempt if its disclosure would be likely endanger the physical or mental health of any individual, or the safety of any individual. Section 44 deals with exempt information being not disclosed if disclosure is otherwise prohibited by or under any enactment.

While the Tribunal’s decision supports the Information Commissioner’s guidance note from 2005, which identifies seniority within an organisation as one of the decisive factors, the Tribunal emphasises that it is not setting any binding precedent here.

See the Tribunal’s decision EA/2006/0027 of 20 July 2007.

The ICO guidance note on Access to Information about Public Authorities’ Employees
is available on the ICO website.

2. New guidance on vexatious requests

The ICO has updated its guidance on vexatious and repeated requests. In most cases, a request can be treated as vexatious if it would impose a significant expense burden or distraction on the public authority in terms of expense or distraction, and fulfils at least one of the following requirements;

1. It clearly does not have any serious purpose or value
2. It is designed to cause disruption or annoyance
3. It has the effect of harassing the public authority
4. It can otherwise fairly be characterised as obsessive or manifestly unreasonable.

This comprehensive, 20-page guide provides organisations information on how to identify vexatious requests, and how to deal with them.

The Commissioner has taken several decisions in support of organisations that have refused FOI requests by means of relying on this exemption. However, he states that authorities should not conclude that a request is vexatious or repeated unless there are sound grounds for such a decision.

The Guidance Note No 22, published on 23 July 2007, is available from the ICO.

For further details on the Privacy Laws & Business UK Newsletter, please click here.

Copyright Privacy Laws & Business 2007