FOI Centre – Coronavirus (COVID 19) FAQs

Frequently Asked Questions

Can I still submit a Freedom of Information (FOI) request?

We are continuing to accept FOI requests, but – depending on the nature of the enquiry – our response may be delayed, as staff access to the collection is currently limited.

Please note that following the Prime Minister’s announcement of the?national lockdown in England our reading room services and staff access to records are suspended until further notice.

Since our original closure in mid-March, the FOI Centre has developed revised ways of working remotely, to ensure that FOI requests are progressed as quickly as possible.

The Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) also has a?new page about how coronavirus is impacting the FOI process, which you may find useful.

If you would still like to submit a request, please use our?corporate FOI enquiry form. If your enquiry relates to a document in our collection, please ensure that you include the catalogue reference(s).

What is the timescale for dealing with a new FOI request?

We have published a guide on our website, which explains the normal time frame for processing FOI requests, outlining the statutory deadlines.

FOI requests are, as far as possible, dealt with in the order they were received and on a case-by-case basis. Some records comprise just a few pages, while others consist of a number of boxes. The time spent on each request can vary a great deal and until a record is assessed, it is not always possible to estimate how complex and time consuming, the work will be. In some cases it may be possible to release a redacted version of a record and again, the amount of work this involves can vary enormously.

Owing to the numerous factors outside our control (e.g. suspended or limited on site staff access to our record collection), it is not possible to provide a general timescale for the delays you may incur with your FOI request, or an indication at this point of when we may have resolved delays affecting the service.

We appreciate your continued patience while we work on your requests. As soon as we are able we will update you and your requests accordingly.

How long will it be before I can see a newly opened record, or order a copy of it?

In line with government guidance, our Reading Room services are suspended until further notice, as are some of our online services, including record copying.

Any update on our services will be added to our main news pages. Please do keep checking here for any changes.

Why is the Public Interest Test taking so long?

The Public Interest Test (PIT) is a legal requirement under the Freedom of Information Act. It involves several stages (see below explanation), which can in normal circumstances take time to complete. In this current environment additional factors have contributed to delays to the FOI request process, which includes the PIT test.

There are some cases which require departments to access the records at Kew. We have been unable to facilitate this part of the process while The National Archives has been closed. The FOI Centre has also had limited access to the records requested, which has slowed down the review process and our ability to resolve requests as quickly as we would like.

In addition, the other Government departments that make the arguments for or against the opening of a record held at The National Archives are also operating differently, as they deal with coronavirus (COVID-19) and remote working.

Despite our best efforts to maintain a normal FOI service throughout the pandemic, it has not been possible. We are working hard with all the parties involved to resolve requests and PIT tests as quickly as possible.

Stage One: Government department performs the PIT test

It is the responsibility of the transferring government department to perform the PIT test, where they consider the public arguments in favour of, and against, the release of the information. Sometimes the formulation of these arguments requires input from more than one government department.

Stage Two: Independent evaluation

This occurs through consultation of the Advisory Council on National Records and Archives (ACNRA) representatives, who are consulted on the use of the qualified exemption via what we refer to as a Panel.

Panels are comprised of three members of the Council, who are sent the necessary papers and asked to consult as necessary and report their conclusions to the Secretary of the Advisory Council.

The public interest test considerations are provided to the panel by the department who transferred the file, not by The National Archives. The panel may then ask questions about the application of the exemption and/or query any aspect of the case with the transferring department and The National Archives. The panel’s decision about whether the exemption is justified is finally communicated to the FOI Assessor handling the case, who will then inform the requester in writing.

You told me a redacted version of the record would be released. Why is it taking so long?

As a result of restricted access to The National Archives for both public and staff, we are unable to progress redactions to the physical records at this current time.

Whilst we have worked hard to maintain the processing of these redactions for the FOI requests we received prior to the latest lockdown, there will continue to be an ongoing delay to completion of this work due to the new restrictions in place.
We appreciate your continued patience, while we work on your requests. As soon as we are able, we will update requesters accordingly.

What measures have been put in place to deal with the backlog of work created by the lockdown?

Despite the challenges, we have already implemented new ways of working (agreements – MOUs) to account for the restrictions that remain in place, and we hope that this will help us to successfully conclude more FOIAs within compliance.

Longer term we need to look to implement more solutions that allow us to continue to work remotely on a regular basis; for example, providing more information digitally to account for these changing working practices.

We will continue to consult the guidance issued by Information Commissioner’s Office.

Further information from the Information Commissioner

ICO’s blog on its information rights work

Data protection and coronavirus information hub