Justice CommitteeWritten evidence from the University of Sussex

About Us

The University of Sussex was the first of the new wave of UK universities founded in the 1960s, receiving its Royal Charter in August 1961. As we celebrate our 50th anniversary, the University has become a leading teaching and research institution. The University has over 10,000 students, of which almost 3,000 are postgraduates. Creative thinking, pedagogic diversity, intellectual challenge and interdisciplinarity have always been fundamental to a Sussex education. Sussex is also a leading research university, as reflected in the 2008 Research Assessment Exercise. Over 90% of Sussex research activity was rated as world leading, internationally excellent or internationally recognised, confirming the University among the leading 30 research universities in the UK, on a simple average across all scores.

Written Evidence on the Issues

Please find below the University’s responses:

1. Does the Freedom of Information Act work effectively?

It is effective to the limited extent that it is used for encouraging transparency in publicly-funded organisations (eg how much is spent on expenses or hospitality by staff), but on the whole it is not used for these purposes.

2. What are the strengths and weaknesses of the Freedom of Information Act?

Strengths

(i)It encourages accountability in spending of public funds.

(ii)It encourages organisations to make more information available to the public via publications schemes.

Weaknesses

(i)It is mostly used by journalists/students/others wanting an economic and expedient way to undertake research.

(ii)As the enquirer is under no obligation to explain their enquiry, or to provide a public-benefit justification the Act is routinely used (particularly by journalists) to “fish” for information around a particular topic, seeking anything of interest will emerge. Worse, it can be deliberately used for time-wasting or mischievous questions.

(iii)It is frequently used by potential commercial suppliers enquiring about competing contracts.

(iv)The Act itself, although apparently straightforward in comparison with other legislation such as the Data Protection Act, is still complex and difficult to navigate, and requires significant investment in staff training by organisations that are subject to it.

3. Is the Freedom of Information Act operating in the way that it was intended to?

No. It takes up an inordinate amount of staff time for very little public benefit. The number of requests is increasing rapidly. The University currently receives two to three enquiries per week which each take around two hours of administration, and a currently unquantified amount of time for compilation of expert responses. Over the last six months around 4% of enquiries received concerned public funding accountability, whilst 13% were commercial enquiries and the remainder were the previously referred to ‘research’ enquiries.

Recommendations for the Committee to Consider including in its Report

The committee should review the amount of time and resource invested by public sector organisations in responding to FOIA enquiries to gauge the level of real public benefit the Act delivers. In particular, we suggest that the FOIA enquirer should be required to present a specific public-interest rationale for each request, which the receiving body should be able to challenge and seek adjudication on.

February 2012

Prepared 25th July 2012