The Information Commissioner's Office recently published new practical guidance to help public authorities understand what information should be made public under the Freedom of Information Act 2000 (FOIA) and Environmental Information Regulations 2004 (EIR).
The guidance focuses on when minutes and agendas of meetings should be disclosed. It is intended to help public authorities decide what they should be publishing and if they can edit before publishing. We have picked out some of the key points from the guidance note, concentrating on the FOIA rather than the EIR, but you can access the full text on the Information Commissioner's website.
The information commissioner recommends that public authorities adopt a model publication scheme where it commits to making information available to the public as part of its normal business activities. As part of its policy a public authority should be clear about what information it will routinely make public. This new guidance note follows on from that by concentrating on the example of agendas and minutes of meetings.
The guidance note recommends that public authorities should proactively publish unedited agenda and minutes for all public meetings and senior level strategy meetings. Lower level internal meetings and meetings which took place more than three years ago are not considered to be of particular interest and it is not recommended that these be published.
Sometimes information will be exempt from disclosure because of the exemptions in the FOIA or EIR, e.g. if it would prejudice the effective conduct of public affairs or if it is commercially sensitive information, or if it is personal information under the Data Protection Act 1998 and it would be unfair to disclose it. In this situation, minutes can be edited to remove the offending sections. The public authority must specify however that the minutes have been edited so that the public are aware that a fuller version does exist.
In nearly all cases it will be fair to release the time and date of meetings and to give broad headings of what was discussed. It will also generally be fair to disclose the names of individuals who attended the meeting in a professional capacity, but it may not always be fair to attribute specific opinions to named individuals.
Overall, this new guidance seems to be a call to public authorities to become more proactive and transparent by routinely publishing minutes and agendas of meetings.