FOI Centre – Coronavirus (COVID 19) FAQs

Frequently Asked Questions

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

We have continued 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.

To ensure that we have the appropriate procedures in place for us to follow government guidelines on social distancing for our staff (as well as visitors), access to the physical records to carry out this work will continue to be restricted, and on site staffing levels for our FOI Centre will be at approximately 10-15% of our previous capability. Since our 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) has published a statement 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. limited on site access), 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 effecting 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, there are currently restrictions on the number of visitors that can visit The National Archives site at any one time in order to view records in person.

Once the record is open on Discovery, you can book a visit to view the record, which you will have to order when you book.

Newly released material will only be available to view in our reading room, as our record copying service remains suspended until further notice.

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 The National Archives being closed to both public and staff, a backlog of records requiring redacting has built up. The amount of work this involves can vary enormously between requests, and with limited access to the physical records it has not been possible to progress.

As our capacity on site has increased with the re-opening in July, we are now working hard to address the backlog and are currently processing these redactions in the order the FOI requests were received. Owing to ongoing limited staff access to the physical records, as well as balancing resource to deal with new FOI requests received, there will continue to be an ongoing delay to completion of this work for some time.

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