UCAS and the extent of FOIA: Tribunal favours wide approach

Transparency advocates often express frustration at the number of bodies which are not within the scope of FOIA, because they are not listed or designated as ‘public authorities’ for FOIA purposes. The Coalition government responded by announcing, in January 2011, that FOIA would be extended to a number of additional bodies. This was done with effect from 1 November 2011, through the Freedom of Information (Designation as Public Authorities) Order 2011. This brought the Association of Chief Police Officers of England, Wales and Northern Ireland (ACPO); the Financial Ombudsman Service and the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service (UCAS) within the scope of FOIA.

As regards UCAS, the difficulty is that this was not done in a straightforward blanket way. In recognition of the diversity of UCAS’ functions, its amenability to FOIA was limited to information relating to the “provision and maintenance of a central applications and admissions service”. This frames UCAS’ duties in a positive way.

This is similar – but not the same as – the approach taken to the BBC, which is subject to FOIA “in respect of information held for purposes other than those of journalism, art or literature”. This frames the BBC’s duties in a negative way.

The Supreme Court in BBC v Sugar (No2) told us how to approach the extent of the BBC’s FOIA duties. How should Sugar be applied to the differently-worded UCAS provision?

This was the issue before the Tribunal in University and College Admission Service v IC and Lord Lucas (EA/2013/0124), the requester (the author of the Good Schools Guide) made a number of requests to UCAS about university admissions. Some were refused on section 12 (cost of compliance) grounds; the ICO agreed with UCAS that the remaining information was exempt under section 43(2) (prejudice to commercial interests). UCAS and the ICO disagreed, however, about the extent to which UCAS was subject to FOIA.

UCAS argued that Sugar required the Tribunal to consider whether the information was held, to any significant degree, for a purpose other than the designation (in particular, UCAS’s commercial functions), and if so, it fell outside the scope of FOIA.

The ICO argued that because the BBC and UCAS were in reverse positions (the BBC being subject to a specific exclusion, and UCAS subject to a specific inclusion), the question should be whether the information was held to any significant degree for the designated purpose, and if so, it fell within the scope of FOIA. Both parties argued that the other was turning Sugar on its head.

The Tribunal adopted the ICO’s analysis of Sugar. The primary purpose of the 2011 Order was to bring UCAS within the scope of FOIA and subject it to the principles of greater openness and transparency that such a designation was designed to bring: at [68]. The focus of the phrase “the provision and maintenance of a central applications and admissions service”, taken with section 7(5) FOIA, is on what is actually caught by FOIA and the purpose of that wording is specifically to include information: at [66].

In favouring this wider approach to the application of FOIA to UCAS, the Tribunal said this:

“71. Most persuasive is the IC’s point that, in construing the scope of the 2011 Designation Order, it is important to recall that Parliament would have been well aware of the existing exemptions provided in FOIA. There is no need to read the 2011 Designation Order narrowly to ensure there is no overlap with a commercial function of UCAS because section 43 FOIA itself provides protection to UCAS in relation to information which prejudices its commercial interests.

72. The approach of UCAS in this case would have the result that only admissions data relating to the currently live admissions round would fall within the scope of FOIA. This surprisingly narrow result is unlikely to have been the one intended by Parliament when designating UCAS as a public authority for FOIA, not least because the ‘”provision and maintenance of a central applications and admissions service” does not suggest such an outcome.”

11KBW’s Chris Knight appeared for the ICO.

Robin Hopkins @hopkinsrobin