The Freedom of Information Act 2000 and Minutes and Committee Papers
Should I change the way I prepare meeting agendas and papers?
It is suggested that colleagues consider (this is not mandatory) dividing meeting agendas, minutes and papers into at least two sections:
- Unreserved Business, containing information that could be released without hesitation in response to a Freedom of Information request or under a publication scheme,
- Reserved Business, which would include:
- Personal information about living individuals (for example information on staff promotions, staff/student dicipline, health information or other personal circumstances, information on identifiable human research subjects; this would not include comments ascribed to committee members).
- Information likely to endanger the health and/or safety of any person (for example information identifying members of staff who experiment on animals).
- Information where publication would be prejudicial to the commercial interests of the University (for example information about unpublished research, or discussions relating to commercial agreements that have not yet been finalised).
- Information where publication would be prejudicial to the commercial interests of another person or organisation (this would not include a person trying to enforce a confidence where the information reveals some form of 'iniquity' on his/her part).
- Information covered by legal and professional privilege (for example advice to the University from lawyers on how to respond to a lawsuit).
- Information that is prejudicial to the effective conduct of public affairs (for example information on security measures taken to prevent unauthorised access to University computing systems).
- Information that is genuinely confidential in nature (i.e. imparted in circumstances importing an obligation of confidence and where unauthorised use of information is to the detriment of communicator to the extent that he/she would have a good legal case against the University). Note that acceptance of confidentiality must be for good reasons and justifiable to the Information Commissioner or a court. A court will not enforce an obligation of confidence where to do so would be contrary to public interest.
A full list of exemptions from the Freedom of Information Act can be found at http://www.bristol.ac.uk/foi/staffinfo/exemptions.html.
Structuring the agenda and papers in this way will enable committee secretaries to deal more easily with individual Freedom of Information requests. It will also assist the University in compiling the publication scheme, which commits to publish unreserved committee business only.
If it becomes apparent that a particular committee is attracting a large number of requests for information, it may be advisable to sub-divide Reserved Business further, since different categories of information will be sensitive for different periods of time. For example, the University is entitled to keep information about purchase of property confidential whilst it is still under negotiation, but it is unlikely that most of this information should be confidential once the sale is completed. On the other hand medical records should remain confidential at least until the deaths of the individuals in question.
What if I automatically classify all meeting papers as 'Reserved Business'?
Documents must only be classified as 'Reserved Business' with good reason. Classifying as 'Reserved Business' all committee agendas, papers and minutes will not automatically exempt those documents from the Freedom of Information Act and could create a greater administrative burden for the committee secretary who will have to respond to the requests. Information not published in the Publication Scheme will be subject to individual requests by the public, and the University must be able to justify to the enquirer (and possibly the Information Commissioner or a court) its reasons for refusing to provide this information, and to identify the specific exemption that permits this refusal. Exemptions apply to information, rather than documents, and therefore not all information in a document may be exempt. Documents will therefore have to be read line by line, and deletions for responses set by law, and could become very onerous for committee secretaries.
What other issues should I think about when writing minutes?
When to publish
Minutes must not be published under the FOIA until the committee has agreed them.
The University believes draft documents are exempt from publication under the Act because, unless an exemption can be applied, it will, on request, publish the final document.
How much information to record
It is important when writing minutes to ensure that they serve their purpose. This can affect the level of detail required in the minutes. Some meetings may simply require a list of actions. However, where the minutes are intended to record detailed information for the future use of people who were not present at the meeting, it will be more appropriate to have a fuller record of what was said and the reasons why decisions were made.
Deliberately writing vague minutes to avoid Freedom of Information legislation is strongly discouraged. Apart from the fact that the minutes will be no value to the University as a record of decisions taken, it is likely to result in more detailed, specific individual requests from the public, thereby increasing the administrative burden on the committee secretary.
The Committee Servicing Procedures for Committees of Senate can be found at http://www.bris.ac.uk/academicregistry/safe/senate/stanords.doc
Is it necessary to identify individual committee members in minutes?
The University will not publicly identify any committee members when it considers that to do so would constitute a risk to the health or safety of any individual. In such cases, however, committee secretaries should see whether it is possible to publish the minutes without identifying the relevant committee members.
However, the purpose of the Freedom of Information Act is to make public authorities and their employees more accountable to the public, so, as a rule, committee members must accept that they will be held publicly accountable for the decisions they take.
Clearly, decisions are taken by the entire committee and not by the individual members. Whether specific comments or opinions are ascribed to an individual will depend on the house style of the committee and also on the wishes of the committee members - some individuals may ask to have their views, or disagreement with the committee view, specifically recorded (for example 'Professor x did not agree with the new car parking policy'). Others may prefer the minutes to contain more general statements (such as 'the committee agreed not to award promotion to candidate y').
Committee secretaries must make sure that committee members from outside the University, such as lay-members of Council, individuals seconded from industry, student members or external examiners, are made aware of the requirements of the Freedom of Information Act.
How should I deal with drafts?
There is no need to retain draft documents once the committee has approved the final document. Should there be a need to retain drafts, for example, to record the development of the University's approach to a major policy initiatives committees should be aware that the drafts would no longer be covered by the 'intended for future publication' exemption and therefore publishable under the FOIA unless another exemption applies.