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.

Since our original closure in mid-March 2020, 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.

You can make an FOI request via our online contact form or by post, addressing your enquiry to: Enquiry Service, The National Archives, Kew, Richmond, Surrey TW9 4DU.

If you are submitting your request by post please include a description of the information you are looking for. Please remember to provide a contact name and address and remember that we will have a better chance of finding the information you seek if you include as much detail as possible.

You can also make an FOI request for a closed record when you are browsing Discovery, our online catalogue, by selecting the ‘Submit FOI request’ button to the right of the closed record description.

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

We have published a guide on our website, which explains the normal timeframe 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?

The National Archives has partially re-opened to the public and is currently capable of accommodating up to 100 individual readers in our reading rooms on a daily basis between Tuesday and Saturday, 10:00 to 14:50.

To manage our re-opening we have implemented a booking system wherein readers may book a maximum of two visits in a rolling four-week period. For more information please review the following news item, and to book a visit please visit our booking page.

Archival records which have been released as a result of a successful FOI request will typically become available for public ordering within five working days of the date on which the final FOI response was sent to the requester. Copies of such records can be acquired from our Record Copying Service, which is due to resume operation in late April 2021.

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 staff access to The National Archives during the national and local lockdowns a considerable backlog of redaction work had developed. We are working hard to resolve this backlog as soon as possible but given the continued restrictions on staff access there will continue to be an ongoing delay to the completion of this work. 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