Is an Operations Manual held by a public body covered by the Freedom of Information Act?
Yes. If a public authority holds a copy of an Operations Manual and is asked under Freedom of Information for a copy they would be required to consider whether to disclose it. Any request for information would be treated on a case by case basis, but the SGSA’s view is that an Operations Manual would be likely to be discloseable under the Act.
What if we provided the document to the public authority in confidence?
There is an exemption to the release of information received from someone else in confidence, but it would only be applied if complying with the request for information would be a breach of confidence that is actionable.
In other words we could only withhold information on grounds of it being provided in confidence if the person who provided the information would have the right to take us to court as a result of the disclosure. On most occasions this is unlikely to be the case.
What if the public authority has access to an electronic version, for example through an online repository?
If the club created an online repository for an Operations Manual, we may have access to that information but we would not be deemed to be holding the information under the terms of the Act unless we downloaded and saved copies of information.
The Information Commissioner’s guidance suggests that good practice in such cases would be for a public authority to disclose information it has access to if the information is not exempt under other circumstances, or at least to refer the requester to the public authority that created the online repository.
The SGSA policy is if asked for information we can access but do not hold is to refer the requester to the authority that created the online repository.
If the online repository was created by or the primary responsibility of the public authority, they would be deemed to hold the information it contained, and it should be treated like any other electronic records they held.
How would the SGSA decide whether to disclose or withhold such information?
In reaching a view on what to disclose we would consider whether any information should be exempt on legal grounds, for example personal data would be redacted if its release would be contrary to data protection laws. We may also consider other exemptions, such as whether any of the information was commercially confidential.
We would inform the club and local authority in question of the request, and seek their views on such matters before reaching a decision on what to release.
The Freedom of Information Act 2000 provides public access to information held by public authorities. The Act covers any recorded information that is held by a public authority in England, Wales and Northern Ireland, which includes the Sports Grounds Safety Authority and all Local Authorities in England and Wales. Recorded information includes printed documents, computer files, letters, emails, photographs, and sound or video recordings.
Anyone has a right to request information from a public authority, and we are required when responding to such requests to tell the applicant whether you hold any information falling within the scope of their request and to provide that information. We normally have 20 working days to respond to a request.
A requester may ask for any information that is held by a public authority. However, this does not mean you are always obliged to provide the information. In some cases, there will be a good reason why you should not make public some or all of the information requested.
The Freedom of Information Act contains a number of exemptions that allow us to withhold certain information from a requester, for example, an exemption for personal data if releasing it would be contrary to the Data Protection Act, or exemptions based on the harm that would arise or would be likely arise from disclosure, such as if disclosure would be likely to prejudice a criminal investigation.
Most exemptions require the application of a public interest test. This means we must consider the public interest arguments before deciding whether to disclose the information. So we may have to disclose information in spite of an exemption, where it is in the public interest to do so.
Examples of exemptions which might be considered in relation to an Operations Manual include:
Section 41 exemption – confidentiality
This exemption applies in relation to information received from someone else in confidence, but it would only be applied if complying with the request for information would be a breach of confidence that is actionable (in other words if the person who provided the information would have the right to take us to court as a result of the disclosure). In most cases the release of information held within an Operations Manual is unlikely to be actionable.
Section 43 – trade secrets and prejudice to commercial interests
This exemption covers a situation when complying with the request would prejudice or would be likely to prejudice someone’s commercial interests. This exemption is qualified by the public interest test. This means we would need to weigh the public interest in maintaining the exemption against the public interest in disclosure.
In most cases, it is likely that the public interest in disclosing information about spectator safety contained within an Operations Manual would be likely to outweigh the public interest in withholding information, but this would need to be considered on a case by case basis.
The SGSA would consult with a relevant third party (in the cases of Operations Manuals this is likely to be ground management) about whether they believed the release of such information would prejudice their commercial interests before reaching a view on whether and what to disclose.