BBC BLOGS - Open Secrets
« Previous | Main | Next »

Do they have a little list?

Martin Rosenbaum | 11:12 UK time, Monday, 7 July 2008

"I've got a little list" was the famous refrain in the Mikado, but if the Lord High Executioner was a public authority in contemporary Britain, he might be more likely to sing "I do not hold the information requested and I am not obliged to create new information."

This thought about the modernisation of comic opera is prompted by the latest batch of decisions issued by the Information Commissioner Richard Thomas, which make clear some interesting and important conflicts between him and the Cabinet Office.

In one the Commissioner has ordered the Cabinet Office to reveal more records of exchanges between Tony Blair and Rupert Murdoch, arguing that 'it would further understanding of the interaction between an influential media owner and the Government in a democratic system'. He also criticises the Cabinet Office for a whole series of delays and procedural errors in their handling of this request which was first made in 2005.

The other decisions are notable for the Commissioner's clear statement of policy on those cases where public authorities state they do not hold a 'list' of requested information when they do hold constituent parts of it in separate records, a strangely problematic issue I have discussed previously.

These two cases (this and this) stem from a requester apparently 'baffled' that the Cabinet Office could not provide a list of those documents it had previously disclosed under freedom of information.

Since this difficulty crops up surprisingly often, it is worthwhile quoting the latest decisions at some length:

"The Commissioner acknowledges that public authorities will often receive requests made under the Act for lists of information. In many cases this will not be information which the public authority holds in list form but the constituent data parts, instead, will be held in a database or other disparate sources. A common response to such requests is that the information is simply not held, because, as noted above, the public authority is not in possession of a physical list, as requested. A number of public authorities have further claimed that responding to such a request would involve the creation of new information.

"The Commissioner does not accept this position and instead is of the view that where a database or other electronic source contains recorded information identified in a request, the information is held, and the public authority is under an obligation to provide it (unless it is exempt) ...

"Additionally, where a public authority holds information constituent to a request (the "building blocks") in the form of manual records the Commissioner considers that it is held, provided that the work involved in providing this does not involve the exercising of more than a minimal degree of skill and judgement."

(But note however that the time involved in retrieving the information could exceed the cost limit, so a request could still be turned down on that basis).


or register to comment.

BBC © 2014 The BBC is not responsible for the content of external sites. Read more.

This page is best viewed in an up-to-date web browser with style sheets (CSS) enabled. While you will be able to view the content of this page in your current browser, you will not be able to get the full visual experience. Please consider upgrading your browser software or enabling style sheets (CSS) if you are able to do so.