Watchdog backs THE’s demand for timely minutes from London Met

Institution’s 12-month embargo is probably ‘in breach’ of ICO guidelines. David Matthews reports

December 12, 2013

Source: Getty

Wait no longer: London Metropolitan has been ordered by the Information Commissioner to release minutes from 2012

A victory by Times Higher Education in seeking the publication of minutes from a university’s council meeting could lead to greater transparency in the sector.

London Metropolitan University was found likely to be in breach of guidance from the Information Commissioner after refusing to publish minutes of meetings of its governing council until 12 months after the event.

The university has been ordered by the Information Commissioner’s Office to release minutes of meetings held shortly after it temporarily lost its licence to sponsor international students in 2012. It was also told to consider reducing the 12-month waiting period.

In January this year, THE asked London Met for its council minutes from 2012. The institution refused to release more recent minutes, invoking an exemption to the Freedom of Information Act that allows public authorities to withhold information that will be published at a later date.

The university informed THE that it had decided to delay publication of governing council minutes for 12 months after each meeting to ensure that the body had a “safe space” for internal debate.

Universities generally release their minutes after they are approved at the next meeting, of which there are usually about seven a year.

THE appealed against the decision to the ICO, which on 4 December judged that the university could not use this exemption because at the time of THE’s original request it did not have a “settled” intention to publish the minutes in the future.

In its decision notice, the ICO points to its own guidance, which says that minutes should be published “reasonably soon after the meeting has been held”.

“The commissioner considers it unlikely that publishing minutes 12 months after the date of a meeting could be deemed reasonably soon,” it says.

The notice encourages the university to “consider whether the time period should be reduced to reflect the spirit of the legislation and the commissioner’s guidance”.

However, such was the length of the contest over the FoI request that London Met published the minutes in question – from meetings on  September and 5 and 29 November 2012 – on its website before the ICO decision, although some of the proceedings are redacted or contained in other, unpublished documents.

While the ICO was deliberating on the case, the university also invoked four further exemptions from the act to withhold various parts of the minutes in question.

THE challenged three of these exemptions. The ICO found that the university was not able to use two of them – covering confidential sources of information and legal professional privilege – but permitted the use of a third one covering communications with the Royal Family.

At the 29 November meeting, one agenda item was the university’s patron, who at that time was the Duke of Edinburgh. In April this year his son the Duke of York took over the role.

The ICO decision notice gives London Met 35 days to release the minutes (with the exception of information about the Royal Family and a number of bank details) or risk being in contempt of court.

London Met declined to comment.

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