In brief…

Anyone has a right to request environmental information from a public authority. An individual does not have to mention the Environmental Information Regulations when making a request and the request does not have to be directed to a specific member of staff. Under the Regulations, requests can be made verbally or in writing.

When you receive a request for information, you should consider whether the requested information is environmental and should be dealt with under the Regulations. In most cases this will be fairly clear. If the requested information is not environmental, you will need to deal with it under the Freedom of Information Act. You should also consider whether the information is the requester’s personal data – if so, you will need to deal with it under the Data Protection Act as a ‘subject access request’. For guidance on dealing with requests under the Act, see the section What should we do when we receive a request? in the Guide to Freedom of Information.

We recommend you provide clear contact details for the person in your organisation who deals with requests for information, but you cannot ignore or refuse a request if it is not addressed to the relevant person.

The Regulations say that when you receive a request, you should:

  • always respond in writing, regardless of whether the request was made verbally or in writing;
  • tell the requester whether you hold any information; and
  • make that information available, unless an exception applies.

You normally have 20 working days to respond to a request.

This doesn’t mean you have to treat every enquiry formally as a request under the Regulations. It will often be most sensible and provide better customer service to deal with it as a normal customer enquiry under your usual customer service procedures. For example, if a householder wants to know the refuse collection dates for their property, it could be dealt with as a ‘normal course of business’ enquiry – you could tell them there and then, or send them a copy of the relevant leaflet. The legal requirements under the Regulations may come into force if:

  • you cannot provide the requested information straight away; or
  • the requester makes it clear they expect a response under the legislation.

In more detail

What are the requirements for a request under the Environmental Information Regulations?

Anyone can make a request for information, including members of the public, journalists, researchers, scientists, lawyers, businesses, campaign groups and MPs. An information request can also be made to any part of a public authority. You may have a designated information requests team to whom the public can make their requests. However, members of the public will often address their requests to staff they already have contact with, or who seem to know most about the subject of their request.

When you receive a request, you have a legal responsibility to identify that a request has been made and handle it accordingly. So staff who receive customer correspondence should be particularly alert to identifying potential requests.

You should also be aware of other legislation covering access to information, including the Data Protection Act 1998, the Freedom of Information Act 2000, the INSPIRE (Infrastructure for Spatial Information in the European Community) Regulations 2009, and sector specific legislation that may apply to your authority, such as Local Government Acts.

The Regulations do not specify how a valid request must be made. Requests can be made verbally or in writing, so a request could be made by telephone, letter or email, or using social media sites such as Facebook or Twitter. It is good practice to have a policy for recording details of the requests you receive, particularly those made by telephone or in person. You may wish to check with the requester that you have understood what information they want; this can help avoid later disputes about how you have interpreted the request. We also recommend that you keep a log of verbal requests. Our verbal request log sheet shows the details you should record in these cases.

As the Regulations say you must respond to all requests in writing, you will need to ask the requester for a name and contact details for correspondence. In contrast to the Freedom of Information Act, a request is still valid if the requester doesn’t use their real name.

A request does not have to specify or describe the information. Any clear sign that someone wants some environmental information is likely to count as a request under the Regulations, even if you can’t tell exactly what information they want. However, there are other provisions to help you deal with requests which are too broad, unclear or unreasonable. See When can we refuse a request for environmental information? for more information.

For more information, read our detailed guidance:

When should we deal with a request for information under the Environmental Information Regulations?

You can deal with many requests by providing the requested information in the normal course of business. If the information is included in your publication scheme, you should give this out automatically, or provide a link to where the information can be accessed.

If you can’t provide the information in the normal course of business, or if the requester insists on a formal response, then you should first consider the nature of the information requested to decide which legislation or access regime applies.

If someone is asking for their own personal data, you should deal with this as a ‘subject access request’ under the Data Protection Act.

For more information, read our more detailed guidance:

If the request is for environmental information, then you will need to deal with it under the Regulations. It won’t always be obvious from reading the request that it’s for environmental information, so you may need to read at least a sample of the information requested before deciding.

If the requested information is not environmental information, then you should deal with the request under the Freedom of Information Act.

For more detail, read:

What should we do when we receive a request?

Read the request carefully to make sure you know what is being asked for and that the information described in the request is environmental. Always consider contacting the applicant to check that you have understood their request correctly.

You should read a request objectively. Do not get diverted by the tone of the language the requester has used, your previous experience of them (unless they explicitly refer you to this) or what you think they would be most interested in.

What if we are unsure what’s being asked for?

Requests are often ambiguous, with many potential interpretations or no clear meaning at all. Under regulation 12(4)(c) of the Regulations, you can refuse to answer a request that is too general, provided you have gone back to the requester and asked for extra information, offering them advice and assistance to help to explain, clarify or rephrase their request. This might involve explaining the options available to them, and asking whether any of the suggested options would answer their request.

You have 20 working days to go back to the requester for further information. If you do this, you don’t have to respond until the requester clarifies their request – you then have 20 working days to respond to the rephrased request.

Example

“You have asked for minutes of all the planning department’s meetings attended by Mr John Smith and the planning documents concerning the Quays development from June, July or August this year.

This could mean:

a) minutes of all planning department meetings John Smith has ever attended; plus the planning documents concerning the Quays development drafted in July, July or August;

b) minutes of all planning department meetings John Smith attended in June, July or August; plus the planning documents concerning the Quays development drafted in June, July or August;

c) minutes of all planning department meetings John Smith ever attended concerning the Quays development; plus the planning documents concerning the Quays development drafted in June, July or August; or

d) minutes of all planning department meetings John Smith attended concerning the Quays development in June, July or August; plus the planning documents concerning the Quays development drafted in June, July or August.

Please let us know which documents you are interested in.”

For more information, read our more detailed guidance:

How long do we have to respond to a request?

The Regulations say you have to make information available as soon as possible, and no later than 20 working days. You should count the first working day after you receive the request as the first day. You shouldn’t wait until the twentieth day to respond to a request – your main obligation is to provide the information as soon as possible after you receive the request.

Working day means any day other than a Saturday, Sunday, or public holidays and bank holidays; this may or may not be the same as the days you are open for business or staff are in work.

The time allowed for complying with a request starts when your organisation receives it, not when it reaches the information officer or other relevant member of staff.

For more information, read our more detailed guidance:

It will take us a long time to find the information. Do we still have to deal with the request?

Sometimes a requester will ask for a lot of complex information, which makes it more difficult for you to decide whether to release it. In these exceptional circumstances, the Regulations permit you to extend the 20 working day limit to 40 working days to give you more time to answer the request. You will still need to notify the requester that you are extending the time for compliance as soon as possible, and no later than 20 working days after the date you receive the request.

In some cases, if finding the information and drawing it together to answer the request would be an unreasonable burden on your resources, you may be able to refuse the request under regulation 12(4)(b) (manifestly unreasonable). In these cases you will still have to write to the requester and explain this, and where possible tell them if you hold the information.

See When can we refuse a request for environmental information? for more details.

Can a question be a valid request?

You will often be asked ‘how’, ‘why’ and ‘if’ questions about the work you do. Such questions will be valid requests for information under the Regulations.

Example

“Why have you approved the building work at the Town Hall?”

“Can you forward me all the information you have about the recent planning application for the Town Hall?”

“I would like to request information relating to your approval of the recent planning application for changes to the Town Hall.”

These are all valid requests for information about the reasons for the decision.

If you hold recorded information that answers the question, you should provide it in response to the request. You do not have to provide information if you do not already hold it in recorded form.

We recognise that you may initially respond to questions informally, but we will expect you to consider your obligations under the Regulations as soon as it becomes clear that the requester is dissatisfied with this approach.

Ultimately, if there is a complaint to the ICO, the Commissioner will make her decision based on whether recorded information is held and has been provided.

Even though the Regulations require you to provide recorded information, this doesn’t stop you providing answers or explanations as well, as a matter of normal customer service.

Should Parliamentary Questions be treated as requests for information under the EIR?

Parliamentary Questions (PQs) are part of parliamentary proceedings and must not be treated as requests for information under the EIR (or under FOIA); to do so would infringe parliamentary privilege.

For more information on what parliamentary privilege read:

What happens if we don’t have the information?

If you don’t have the information the requester has asked for, regulation 12(4)(a) says you must issue a formal refusal notice telling them that you do not have the information. See When can we refuse a request for environmental information? for more details.

When compiling a response to a request for information, you may have to draw from multiple sources of information you hold. However, if you don’t already have the relevant information in recorded form you don’t have to create an answer or find out information from elsewhere.

If the requester has asked a question and you don’t hold recorded information but can answer it, it may be good customer service to answer that question. However, the Regulations do not require you to do this.

If you don’t hold information that answers a request, but you know that the information is held by another public authority, you should transfer the request to them, or advise the requester to redirect their request. For more details about transferring requests for information, see our Regulation 16 – Code of Practice guidance.

For more information, read our more detailed guidance:

Do we have to tell them what information we have?

Under the Regulations, you should always respond in writing to a request and should normally let a requester know whether or not you have the information they have requested. The Regulations say you do not have to tell the requester whether you hold the information they want if:

  • confirming or denying that you hold the information would adversely affect international relations, defence, national security or public safety (see regulation 12(6)); and
  • confirming or denying that you hold the information would breach the Data Protection Act (see regulation 13(5)).

If it would be manifestly unreasonable for you to find out what information you hold, we wouldn’t expect you to tell the requester what information you have. See When can we refuse a request for environmental information? for details.

If you are giving the requester the information they have asked for, then you have fulfilled the duty of letting them know what information you hold.

If you are refusing all or part of the request, you still have to say what information you hold. You don’t need to describe the information – you only have to say whether you have information that falls within the scope of their request.

In what form or format should we give the requester the information?

Requesters’ rights about the form and format of the information requested are covered in regulation 6.

There are a number of ways you could make information available, including by email, as a printed copy, using removable media such as CD or memory card, or by arranging with the requester to view the information. Normally, you should send the information by whatever means is reasonable. For example, if the requester has made their request by email, and the information is an electronic document in a standard form, then it is reasonable to reply to that email and attach the information.

Requesters have the right to ask that information be made available to them in a particular form of format when they make their initial request. If it is reasonable for you to provide the information in that way, you should do so. If you cannot put the information into the requested form or format, or the information is already publicly available and easily accessible in another form or format, you don’t have to provide the information in the way the requester specifies, but you will need to give them your reasons within 20 working days of receiving the request.

The Regulations go further than the Freedom of Information Act in allowing the requester to specify the form and format of the information (the Act only covers form). The form is the way a piece of information is communicated, for example in electronic or hard copy; the format is how the data is arranged within that form, for example using a specific software format. Increasingly, requesters are asking for information in open, reusable formats such as CSV files. There is more guidance about open formats on the data.gov.uk website.

The Act contains specific provisions relating to datasets. Under the Act, if the information that a public authority is making available in response to a request is a dataset, and the requester has expressed a preference for an electronic copy, then, so far as reasonably practicable, the public authority must provide the dataset in an electronic form that is capable of re-use.

The Regulations do not contain the same provisions. However, if a requester has asked you to provide an environmental dataset in a re-usable format, then you should consider this in the same way as any other request for a particular form or format.

You may also want to consider whether you would like to include anything else with the information, such as a copyright notice for third party information, or an explanation and background context. If the information you are providing originates from a third party, it may be worth consulting them about what you’re doing. This does not stop you releasing the information, though – you can only refuse to answer the request if an exception under regulation 12 applies.

For more information, read our more detailed guidance:

Do we always have to release the information?

Yes, unless there is a good reason not to. The Regulations provide a number of ‘exceptions’ for particular circumstances when you can refuse to provide information in response to a request. See When can we refuse a request for environmental information? for more details.

Can we change or delete information that has been requested before providing it?

No. Deletion could be a criminal offence under regulation 19 if the deletion is intended to prevent disclosure. You should normally disclose the information you held at the time of the request. There is no exception in the Regulations for information that you hold when you receive the request but that is due for routine destruction shortly afterwards. So you must delay destroying the information and consider the request in the usual way. You are entitled to change a document by removing or redacting parts that are subject to an exception under regulation 12.

For more information, read our more detailed guidance:

Do the Environmental Information Regulations allow us to disclose information to a specific person or group alone?

Disclosures under the Regulations are ‘to the world’. However, you can restrict the release of information to a specific individual or group at your discretion, by providing information outside the scope of the Regulations.

If you make a restricted disclosure, you should make it very clear to the requester that the information is for them alone. However, if the requester has made it clear that they want the information under the Regulations, and isn’t satisfied with receiving it on a discretionary basis:

  • you must provide it to them with no restrictions; or
  • you can refuse the request if an exception applies.

See When can we refuse a request for environmental information? for more details.

Can we charge for the information?

Yes, in some circumstances you can charge a fee for making the information available. Any charge should be ‘reasonable’ – it should not exceed the costs you incur in making the information available or act as a deterrent to the right to request information. It may cover the cost of the paper for photocopying or printing the information and a covering letter and the cost of postage. It may also include the cost of staff time in identifying, locating or retrieving the information from storage.

You cannot charge for allowing a requester access to public registers or to inspect the requested information. It would not be reasonable to charge for information that would not cost you anything to send (for example, an email attachment).

You can charge for environmental information only if you publish a schedule of charges and details of when you may or may not charge. This gives the requester an opportunity to consider the cost of their request before making it. We encourage you to publish this information as part of your Freedom of Information Act publication scheme, keeping the information up to date in line your duty under the Regulations to progressively make information available. See What environmental information do we need to publish? for more details.

If you charge a fee, you should refer the requester to your schedule of charges within 20 working days. If you need them to pay in advance, you should tell them this, and the amount. You do not have to provide the information until you have received the fee.

For more information, read our more detailed guidance: