House of Commons staff guidance on handling requests for information
The Freedom of Information Act 2000 provides the right to access information held by the House of Commons. A similar right applies specifically to environmental information (Environmental Information Regulations 2004 or EIR).
All written requests for information received by the House are FOI (or EIR) requests, not just the ones marked as such. Many teams across the House, such as committee offices, information teams, enquiry teams, etc., may receive these requests.
The majority of these requests involve information which is routinely provided and should be treated as business as usual (BAU). However, if you receive a request for information which is NOT BAU, you must inform the IRIS Service as soon as possible.
FOI or Business as Usual?
- Can be in any format (telephone, email, letter)
- Request routine or easily accessible information
- Are usually answered as part of the team's day-to-day business
- Must be made in writing (including email)
- Do not have to state they are FOI/EIR requests
- May request information held by several teams across the House
- May request information we might not want to disclose (e.g. personal data, security information, commercially sensitive data, etc.)
- Must be answered within 20 working days.
Please note that staff may also opt treat a BAU request as a FOI request if:
- We intend to refuse the request because it is repeated, vexatious, or it will take more than 24 working hours to retrieve the data;
- The handling of the request by an apparently separate team might also serve to calm or reassure the requester.
What to do
- Try to answer as soon as possible, but no longer than 20 working days after the request was received.
- Ensure the requester knows how they can ask any follow-up questions, or complain if required.
- Send these to the IRIS Service as soon as possible
- Send any information relevant to the request to IRIS
- IRIS will log and acknowledge the request, gather the data, draft a response, then coordinate the relevant approvals before sending the formal response to the requester.
The FOI Act provides some very specific obligations for the public authorities it covers, which include the House of Commons. The House of Lords is also covered under the Act, as a separate public authority.
- confirm or deny we hold the requested information.
- and, if we do hold it, provide access.
- Do this within 20 working days or receiving the request
Please note that all recorded information held by the House of Commons is ‘FOI-able'. This includes but is not limited to:
- hand-written notes
- desk notes
- audio and video recordings
It does not matter where this information is held as long as it is business information held on behalf of the House. It may include material stored in a personal inbox, or on a memory stick, or even off-site, so we recommend that teams have good records management practices.
However, under certain circumstances we are permitted to refuse a request or exempt some or all information from disclosure. The IRIS Service can provide more details if you think this applies.
The deadline to answer each request is quite tight. The IRIS Service requires teams to supply information held within 7 working days to allow time for queries, drafting, notifications and approvals.
For this reason we recommend:
- Information is not stored in personal areas such as inboxes. This cannot be accessed if the staff member is absent
- Official mail should be sent to generic/team email accounts which are checked regularly
- Out of Office messages give an alternative email address
- Any FOI requests received by teams are sent immediately to IRIS
- General FOI guidance for staff
- General EIR guidance for staff
- More detailed guidance, including more information about refusals and exemptions
- Some teams, including Select Committees, deal with material to which exemptions such as section 34 (parliamentary privilege) applies.
Special guidance for Select Committee Clerks