About the FOI Act and making a request

The FOI Act gives anyone the right to request access to information held by the Council and also places an obligation on us to publish more information as a matter of routine and is designed to promote democracy by allowing people to gain a greater understanding of how the Council works and how we make our decisions.

In the vast majority of cases, we are legally obliged to inform the requester whether we hold the requested information and, if so, to communicate it to them, subject to any exemptions that may apply.

A valid Freedom of Information (FOI) request must:

  • Be in writing - this includes email
  • Include the name of the person requesting the information - no proof of identity is needed
  • Include an address for correspondence - this does not have to be a home address and an e-mail address may be acceptable, but if we are unable to supply the information requested electronically we will need a postal address
  • Clearly describe what information is being requested. Council staff may be able to help you to do this. Avoid very broad requests as these could be turned down on the grounds that the work involved in locating the information is excessive (normally this means where the cost of the work of locating and retrieving information exceeds £450 – the equivalent of 18 hours’ work)

There are no special rules for the form in which a request for Environmental Information should be made under the Environmental Information Regulations (EIR).

Council staff can offer assistance if you need help in submitting a request in writing, typically by making a note of the request made over the phone and sending a copy to you to confirm that the wording is correct.

Make an FOI request

This is the legal term for ownerless property that passes to the Crown.

Estates of people who die in England or Wales intestate and with no known kin, are notified to the Treasury Solicitor, or in certain circumstances to the Duchies of Cornwall and Lancaster.

You can find out more on the Treasury Solicitor’s website.

Tracking down heirs to these estates is both a business and an increasingly popular hobby, and ‘heir-hunters’ now routinely use the Freedom of Information Act (FOI) to obtain the information that has been notified to the Treasury Solicitor etc.

We are receiving an increasing numbers of ‘Bona Vacantia’ FOI requests, and some requesters send fresh requests every four weeks.

Our answer is nearly always the same and to save requesters’ time and public money in fruitless requests, this is Norfolk County Council’s position:

  • We are not social landlords
  • We do not arrange Public Health funerals
  • We do not maintain a database or lists of Bona Vacantia notifications, and so cannot readily locate and retrieve information

Any information held will be in service users’ case files, to search which would, in all probability, exceed the £450 cost limit at which an FOI request can be refused.

Given that information is held and can be located and retrieved within the cost limit, it may not be disclosable.

The Council owes a duty of confidentiality to its service users, even after death, and to third parties. Information is absolutely exempt from disclosure where disclosure would constitute an actionable breach of confidence (S.41(1) of the FOI Act).

The Freedom of Information Act 2000 (FOI) specifies circumstances where a public authority is not obliged to disclose information, or where it is prohibited from doing so.

These exemptions include:

  • Availability of the information by other means
  • Intended publication
  • Law enforcement
  • Investigations
  • Court records
  • Personal data
  • Health and Safety
  • Legal privilege
  • Trade secrets and commercial sensitivity
  • Maintaining confidentiality
  • Prejudice to the conduct of public affairs
  • Statutory prohibition from disclosure
  • Environmental Information, which is covered by the Environmental Information Regulations

The application of an exemption is specific to an individual request, and sometimes to an individual document or part of a document.  An exemption may be applicable at one particular moment in time, but not at another.

You can find out about exemptions and when and how they can be applied on the  Information Commissioner’s website.

If we believe that information requested should be exempt from disclosure, the applicant is promptly notified. Sometimes this means that a single ‘refusal notice’ is sent.  On other occasions, for example where the Public Interest Test has to be applied, notices are sent at each stage of consideration of the exemption.

A different set of exemptions (known as exceptions) applies to requests handled under the Environmental Information Regulations.

Publication Schemes are designed to encourage public authorities to proactively make more information available without requiring a formal request to be made under the Freedom of Information Act.

Norfolk County Council has had a Publication Scheme in place since March 2003.

As of 1 January 2009, all public authorities are obliged to follow a new model publication scheme. This contains the following 7 broad classes:

  • Who we are and what we do - covering organisational information, locations and contacts, constitutional and legal governance
  • What we spend and how we spend it – covering financial information relating to projected and actual income and expenditure, tendering, procurement and contracts
  • What our priorities are and how we are doing - strategy and performance information, plans, assessments, inspections and reviews
  • How we make decisions – covering policy proposals and decisions, decision making processes, internal criteria and procedures, consultations
  • Our policies and procedures – covering current written protocols for delivering our functions and responsibilities
  • Lists and registers – covering information held in registers required by law and other lists and registers relating to the functions of the authority
  • The services we offer – covering advice and guidance, booklets and leaflets, transactions and media releases and a description of the services offered

The Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) has produced a series of ‘definition documents’ that show the types of information they expect authorities to publish under each class.

We have to publish a guide to the information available, which in this case is our website.

We are not obliged to alter our website to include sections that fit the classes and headings of the scheme.  Each piece of information will be found in the most relevant section of the website, rather than all of the information covered by a heading necessarily being listed in the same place.  The definition document headings are stated below alongside some pointers on where to find relevant information.

Some of the headings listed in the definition document are very specific (eg ‘Forward Plan’).  These will relate to a document or group of documents and we will often be able to direct you to a specific part of the site where they are published.

Some of the headings are very broad and could potentially cover many different documents we hold (eg ‘internal communications guidance, criteria used for decision-making, internal instructions, manuals and guidelines’).  The ICO’s guidance states that we do not need to publish information that falls under a heading where “it would be impractical or resource-intensive to prepare this material for routine release”.

Consequently, where necessary we have stated our interpretation of the heading in the table below.  It is in these cases that the information will be spread over different parts of the website, depending on the specific topic each piece relates to.

If we do not list the information in our guide (ie on our website), either by publishing the information directly or by stating how a copy can be obtained, the information currently has not been identified as being published under the scheme.  In this situation, you can still submit a Freedom of Information request for the information, which will be considered within 20 working days.

If at the end of the process we feel it would be helpful to publish the information, for instance if we have received several requests on the same topic, we will add it to our website.  We will continue to review our scheme with the intention of publishing further information of public interest.

Charges

The vast majority of information covered by the scheme is available without a charge on our website. Any applicable charges for print versions will be stated on the relevant Internet site entry.

Timescales

The vast majority of information covered by the scheme is available on demand on our website.

Where information is available in print, we aim to send a response within five working days. Where information is available by inspection only, we aim to contact the applicant within five working days to arrange a convenient appointment.

The subject-matter and nature of the information Norfolk County Council holds is largely determined by what the Council is and what it does.

Norfolk County Council delivers the full range of services typical of a large shire county and our website reveals in some detail the services we provide, the activities we engage in, and how we work.

Some servicesare contracted out, but this does not put the information about them beyond the reach of the FOI Act and EIR.

Norfolk County Council wholly owns Norse Group Limited.  This is a holding company containing Norse Commercial Services Limited, NPS Property Consultants Limited and Norfolk Environmental Waste Services Limited.  They are public authorities in their own right and fully subject to the FOI Act and EIR.  You can make an FOI/EIR request to them directly or through the County Council.

Details about each company can be found on their respective websites, as listed below:

There are also private companies and voluntary sector bodies that contract to provide services for the County Council in specific areas.  Such organisations are not public authorities themselves and in general the FOI Act and EIR will not apply to them. However it will apply to information they hold on the County Council’s behalf.

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