One of the most popular search terms on our blog is “disclosure of names under FOI.”
A further question that we were recently asked on a course is whether FOI practitioners should provide their names when they respond to requests.
There have been some important developments since 2013 and our last two blogs on this topic. The provisions of S.40(2) of the Freedom of Information Act (FOI) 2000 have been amended to take into the provisions of General Data Protection Regulation 2016 (GDPR) and the Data Protection Act 2018 (replacing the Data Protection Act 1998).
In addition we now have the benefit of two rulings from the Upper Tribunal namely Information Commissioner v Halpin (GIA)  UKUT 29 (AAC) and Cox v Information Commissioner and Home Office  UKUT 119 (AAC). In addition, the Information Commissioner’s Office has issued revised guidance on requests for personal data about public authority employees which take into account the recent developments.
The FOI Section 40(2) Exemption
The names of staff working in public authorities are personal data as defined by Article 4 (1) of GDPR and S. 3 Data Protection Act (DPA) 2018. In addition organisational charts and internal directories that contain staff names are also personal data if they identify individual members of staff. FOI requests may not necessarily be couched as request for staff names. For instance, a requestor may wish to see “ all communications” about a certain subject, but these communications may include the names of those sending and receiving emails. They may wish to find out the names of staff present in specific meetings (which is what happened in the Cox case). The Cox case was the first occasion in which the Upper Tribunal was tasked with considering the principles governing the disclosure of the names of civil servants, but clearly it has wider application to all other public authorities.
When a public authority receives an information request that includes a request for the names of staff, it needs to consider the third-party personal data exemption in S. 40(2) FOI. This is an absolute exemption if:
- Disclosure of the third-party personal data (in this case staff) would contravene any of the data protection principles; or
- Disclosure would contravene an objection to processing under GDPR Article 21; or –
- The personal data would be exempt if the data subject (member of staff concerned) had made a subject access request.
An almost identical exception operates in EIR regulation 13.
The data protection principles are listed in GDPR Article 5. The first principle is the most relevant in this context. This requires that the processing of personal data must be lawful, fair, and transparent. Disclosing under the FOI constitutes processing.
Before disclosing any staff names the first question is whether the disclosure is lawful. There are six lawful bases for processing in GDPR Article 6, but only consent or legitimate interests are relevant to disclosure under the FOI or EIR. It may be possible to ask staff for their consent to disclose their names. However, given the particularly high threshold for consent to be valid (see GDPR Article 7) and the imbalance of power in an employer/employee relationship, any consent is not necessarily going to be valid.
The alternative lawful basis is that disclosure is “necessary for the purposes of the legitimate interests pursued by the controller or by a third party except where such interests are overridden by the interest or fundamental rights and freedoms of the data subject which require protection of personal data…” (GDPR Article 6 (1)(f)). Some readers may be concerned because the GDPR specifically states that public authorities cannot rely on the legitimate interests’ lawful basis when processing in the performance of their tasks. However, this restriction is lifted in relation to disclosure under the FOI or EIR by S.40(8) of FOI and Reg. 13(6) of EIR respectively.
The ICO guidance suggests that public authorities answer three key questions when considering this issue, namely:
Question 1: What is the legitimate interest in disclosure (or what is the purpose)?
This includes the legitimate interest of the public authority or a third party, which is likely to be the requestor. A wide range of interests may be legitimate interests. The requestor may have a personal and private reason for wanting to know staff names, but this makes it no less relevant. In the Halpin case, the Upper Tribunal confirmed that a purely private interest was capable of amounting to a legitimate interest. In this case Mr Halpin wanted details of the training undertaken by two social workers because their capacity and skills were relevant in any appeal against a Care Act assessment.
Question 2: Is it necessary to disclose staff names for that purpose?
This requires a public authority to ask whether it is “necessary” to disclose staff names in order to serve the legitimate interests of the requestor. It may be possible to provide the applicant with alternative information, such as the numbers of staff involved in a meeting and information about their roles and levels of seniority without providing names. For example, in McFerran v Information Commissioner EA/2012/0030,the requestor wanted to know the names of the council staff who were present during a police search of a council property. The Tribunal acknowledged that there was a legitimate interest in knowing that the search had been conducted properly but it was not necessary for the requestor to know the names of the council staff involved.
Question 3: Does the legitimate interest outweigh the interest and rights of the staff concerned?
This involves a balancing exercise. Public authorities need to consider the likely impacts or consequences that disclosure of staff names will have on the staff themselves.
Names should not be disclosed if disclosure will cause unjustified adverse effects on the staff concerned. It is important to remember when making this assessment, that disclosure of names under the FOI is to “the world at large”. Again, the Upper Tribunal in Halpin was at pains to emphasise that even if the requestor indicates they have no intention of publicising the information, the public authority loses control of the information once it is disclosed. Disclosure under the FOI is not subject to any duty of confidence. This becomes a relevant factor in deciding whether the disclosure will cause unwarranted harm to the named individuals.
The key question when it comes to disclosing names, is what is the harm that will arise from disclosure? There must be a connection between the disclosure and the harm.
Even if disclosure may cause distress to a member of staff this doesn’t automatically trump the legitimate interests of the requestor; the public authority must undertake a balancing exercise. When a public authority carries out this balancing exercise it should take the reasonable expectations of the staff concerned into account. For example, just asking whether the member of staff concerned would have a reasonable expectation that their names would be disclosed to the world at large provides a useful starting point.
This also enables the public authority to address the question of fairness.
In deciding whether to disclose staff names it is important to think about the public facing nature of the role filled by the individual member of staff ; their seniority in the organisation; whether a public authority has a policy on the disclosure of staff names that informs their expectations. The staff privacy notice should also provide staff with some understanding of when their names may be disclosed in response to FOI request.
Clearly a Chief Executive of an organisation should expect that their name is released into the public domain. As the ICO guidance advises:
“The more senior an employee is and the more responsibility they have for decision making and expenditure of public money, the greater their expectation should be that you disclose their names.”
On the other hand somebody with responsibility for cleaning offices will have a real expectation that their name remains confidential. FOI practitioners are familiar with this assessment, which is based on ICO guidance and an earlier case of Home Office v Information Commissioner EA/2011/0203. This said that the names of junior civil servants are generally protected from disclosure unless they occupy a public-facing role. However the decision in the Cox case makes it clear that each case will depend on its own facts and context. There is no blanket presumption in favour of disclosure of the names of senior officials, each case must be considered carefully and with regard to the legitimate interests of the requestor.
Disclosing Names of FOI practitioners
The question of whether a public authority should disclose the name of a person handling an FOI request raises all of the above considerations. First, what is the legitimate interest in a FOI requestor knowing the name of the person who handled their request?
Second, is it necessary to know that person’s name to serve that legitimate interest? Finally does the legitimate interest of the requestor outweigh any harm that may be caused to the member of staff handling the request. There is no legal obligation to disclose staff names and a public authority could refuse under S 40(3) FOI if all of the above are satisfied.
In the interests of transparency many public authorities disclose the names of the person who has handled their request. Given the public facing role and the work that FOI practitioners do it is arguable that their expectation is that their names may be disclosed. However in some organisations FOI requests are dealt with by many different staff at various levels rather than via a single FOI point of contact. In these circumstances more junior staff who have handled requests may have a greater expectation of privacy.
This and other developments will be discussed in our FOI and EIR workshops which are now available as an online option. If you are looking for a qualification in freedom of information, our FOI Practitioner Certificate is ideal. It will soon be available as an online option. Please get in touch to learn more.