Justice CommitteeWritten evidence from the University of Lincoln

Executive Summary

1. The University of Lincoln supports the aims and objectives of the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA); however we submit that its effectiveness is undermined by the growing cost of compliance, exacerbated by the increasing use of public access requests to gain information that is not in the public interest. We recommend a number of ways that the cost of compliance could be reduced, including changes to the timeframe, cost limits and Fees Regulations for public access requests and an alternative to the publication scheme. We also call for parameters to be established for the reasonable use of public access requests based on the information being in the public interest and the request justifying the use of public resources.

Introduction to the Submitter

2. The University of Lincoln was established in 2001, having opened its first building in the city in 1996. The institution has a reputation as a university of innovation and enterprise with an emphasis on research and research-engaged teaching. It currently has 11,722 students on campus and employs 1,331 academic and service staff.

3. The University has experienced a continuous year-on-year increase in the number of public access requests received since the FOIA came into effect, with 25 requests in 2005 rising to 108 requests in 2011.


Does the Freedom of Information Act work effectively?

4. The University of Lincoln supports the objectives of the FOIA of openness, transparency, public accountability, effective decision-making and public involvement in decision-making. However, it is our view that in practice the FOIA does not work effectively in a number of ways and our concerns are detailed in paragraphs 6 to 12 below.

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

5. We consider the main strength of the FOIA to be that it has, in a relatively short period of time, been successful in bring about a culture change in government and other public authorities. While there is still some way to go to before the key objectives of openness, transparency and accountability are fully realised everywhere, the legislative ambition to improve decision-making in those bodies that the public fund and rely on for services has begun to be realised. However, as noted in paragraph 207 of the Memorandum to the Justice Select Committee, the extent to which this has resulted in greater public trust of that decision-making is debateable, with levels of distrust perhaps fuelled by the dominance of negative news stories in the media.

6. In our view the main weaknesses of the FOIA is the cost of compliance. A recent report by the Universities UK Efficiency and Modernisation Task Group, entitled “Efficiency and Effectiveness in Higher Education”, suggested that the direct staff costs of managing public access requests alone costs the HE sector £10 million per annum. As private organisations in receipt of significantly reduced public funding, we would question whether universities should be expected to continue to divert this level of resource from their core activities. We would also ask whether the overall cost to the public purse of public authorities responding to public access requests is justified, particularly in the current financial climate and general reduction in public spending.

7. It is evident from our own experience, and from sources such as the annual Information Legislative and Management Survey conducted by JISC infonet, that the number and complexity of requests is increasing. This means that responding to requests is more expensive, more time consuming and more difficult to manage within 20 working days. We believe there are a number of different measures which would provide a fairer and more workable balance between the rights of requesters and the resource implications for public authorities. Our recommendations are listed below.

(a)Extend the 20 working days timeframe

It typically takes the collaboration of 4–5 members of staff to respond to a public access request. Those staff already have heavy workloads and competing priorities for their time and continually responding to growing numbers of requests within this timeframe is becoming increasingly difficult. Our recommendation is that the 20 working days timeframe be extended in recognition of the increasing administrative burden and reduced staff resources in public authorities.

(b)Change the time or cost limits

Universities are expected to incur costs of up to £450 based on £25 per person per hour (equating to 18 hours of staff time) when responding to a public access request. Although many requests take less than 18 hours to respond to, the expectation that public authorities should spend up to £450 on one request perhaps seems unreasonable given the number of requests now being received and the limited public resources available. Furthermore, the allowance of £25 per hour for staff time was set some time ago and has not been adjusted to account for increases in salary and on-costs. Our recommendation is that either the cost limit is reduced or the hourly rate increased.

(c)Extend the list of activities that can be counted within the cost limits

As noted in paragraphs 173 and 221 of the Memorandum to the Justice Select Committee, a public authority is only able to factor in certain costs when considering the cost limit. This means that many activities such as conducting the public interest test, considering exemptions, writing responses and redacting information cannot be included when they often constitute a significant part of the overall process of responding to requests. Our recommendation is that these activities are allowed to be included within the cost limits.

(d)Review the Fees Regulations

Almost all of the public access requests received by the University are sent by email, with most requesters asking for a response in electronic format. Therefore we rarely incur costs for disbursements, or if we do, we do not charge a fee because it is not worth the administrative cost of processing it. Our recommendation is that consideration be given to other ways public authorities might recoup some of their costs incurred through responding to requests.

(e)Review the use of the FOIA by journalists and commercial requesters

Our concerns about the use of public access requests by journalists and commercial requesters are explained in paragraphs 10 to 12 below. Our recommendation is that parameters be established for the reasonable use of public access requests based on the information being in the public interest and the request justifying the use of public resources.

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

8. We would agree with paragraph 170 of the Memorandum to the Justice Select Committee and argue that publication schemes are not fulfilling their intended function. In our experience the publication scheme is time consuming to create and maintain but used little by those seeking information. Furthermore it seems unnecessary to create a guide to information when websites already have effective search facilities. We would recommend that publication schemes be replaced with a simpler requirement for public authorities to make certain information available and easily searchable online.

9. In addition, if it was intended that publication schemes would reduce the administrative burden of public access requests by enabling public authorities to re-direct enquirers to information already published, in practice this is rarely possible. Many requests pose a series of such specific questions, often requiring information from various sources to be pulled together, that it is arguably impossible to try to anticipate requests and proactively publish information which would provide the answers. Even publishing previous request responses is not particularly helpful as requesters invariably require the most up-to-date information and no two requests are exactly alike.

10. In our view the FOIA is often not used by journalists in the way in which it was intended and this is compounded by the significant number of requests received from the media. While we agree that public bodies should be held to account by the public, and that in some cases the use of the FOIA by journalists is justified as part of their investigations (for example to corroborate a strong suspicion or existing evidence of significant wrong-doing), we would strongly support the concerns noted in paragraphs 203–205 of the Memorandum to the Justice Select Committee. In our opinion the amount of public resource used to provide information to journalists should be proportionate to the public interest in the issue. The use of the FOIA for speculative “fishing trips” does not seem to justify the expense to the public purse, particularly when the resultant articles may not be in the public interest or promote accountability.

11. We are also of the view that the FOIA seems to unintentionally encourage so-called “lazy journalism”, whereby little research and analyses appears to take place either prior to requests being made or after responses are provided. For example, the University recently received a request asking for revenues from allowing tourists and the media to use its campuses. We provided the information requested but if the requester had really wanted to know about how universities use their campuses to derive income they would have received much better quality data if they had taken the time to engage with us directly as they would have discovered that there are many ways we derive economic value from the resources we manage.

12. We would also question whether it was the intention of the FOIA to provide commercial companies with information that might give them an advantage over their competitors, again at the expense of the public purse. Commercial requesters make up another large proportion of the requests received and ask about key staff contacts, current systems, current suppliers and contract values. While in theory all responses to public access requests are in the public domain, in reality it is unlikely that other companies in the same market will become aware of them. This potentially puts the requester at an advantage when tendering for work which seems unfair to other companies and an unjustified use of public resources.

February 2012

Prepared 25th July 2012