The House of Commons cannot pick and choose how it agrees to comply with Freedom of Information requests – particularly when that pickiness has the effect of restricting access to the very information it is required to release.
That was made clear this week in a landmark ruling by the Information Commissioner, which is likely to have major implications for other organisations that have tried this tactic as a means to slow the flow of information to the public.
The saga began back in January 2008, when mysociety founder Tom Steinberg sent in an FoI request to the House of Commons asking for "electronic copies of any documents produced by PICT discussing or evaluating the possible deployment of electronic petitioning systems in Parliament".
The Commons was happy to comply with this request, so long as the material was not sent to any place where the response would be automatically published to the public. Francis Irving of whatdotheyknow took up the cudgels later that year, asking much the same question.
He received much the same reply. The House of Commons would be happy to send him a response to his question, even in the full knowledge that he intended to republish it: but they would not send a response to a site – such as whatdotheyknow – where the response would be automatically displayed for all and sundry to read.
Mr Irving sought clarification. The Commons promised to get back by October, 2008. They didn’t.
Stalemate - or rather a lengthy period of contemplation during which the Office of the Information Commissioner entered the frame. This week the IC ruled in favour of whatdotheyknow – and against the somewhat idiosyncratic view of the House of Commons – requiring the latter body to send information directly to a whatdotheyknow email address, even though whatdotheyknow will republish it.
According to a statement from the IC (pdf): "The complainant made a request for information to the House of Commons via his account on the www.whatdotheyknow.com website. He requested a copy of a document, to be provided in electronic form.
"The public authority expressed its willingness to provide the information to the complainant by way of an alternative email address, however claimed that it would not be reasonably practicable for it to provide the information to the email address generated by the website, as to do so would raise copyright implications as the information provided to that address would be automatically published on the website.
"The Commissioner has investigated and considers that the public authority should provide the requested information to the complainant to the whatdotheyknow.com email address that was used to make the request.
"The Commissioner does not believe that issues relating to how an email address is connected to a publishing mechanism are relevant in terms of considering whether a valid address has been stated for correspondence."
It is likely that this ruling will now have implications for other public bodies determined to maintain artificial barriers between its own release of information and publication of the same. Brent Council for one – and Southampton University, for another. ®