Case number: 99337
Request for records relating to a specific range of payments under the Supplementary Welfare Allowance Scheme - where records do not exist but a record could be created by compiling data held by the body - would this constitute an unreasonable administrative burden - section 10(1)(c)
The requester sought, from the Board, access to records giving a detailed breakdown of payments made in Co Galway under the Exceptional Needs Payments (ENP) Scheme in respect of floor covering for wooden floors, as opposed to floor covering for concrete floors. He also sought a detailed breakdown of payments made in Co Galway under the same scheme, which are designated as "Other ENP" i.e. miscellaneous payments which do not come under a particular category. The Board was unable to produce such a record giving the requested details from its computer system, as only one month's data is retained on that system. The Board then asked each Community Welfare Officer in County Galway to submit a manual listing of details in all cases in which assistance for floor covering had been given in a specified period. Of those cases identified, assistance was given to cover concrete floors only. However, the requester said he was aware of a person in County Galway who had received a payment for wooden flooring but was not in a position to reveal his or her identity.
The Commissioner commented that where a specific record did not exist, it may be possible to compile a record from data available to the Board. However, he went on to say that, in such a situation, (given the time and expense involved) it would have to be considered if compiling the record would interfere substantially with the other work of the body, and whether it would be reasonable to expect the body to compile the records.
In this case, because of the manner in which the Board filed ENP applications, the Commissioner found that to compile a record which would fulfil the request would involve a manual search through each customer file in the Board for any applications on those files for ENP. These applications would then have to be examined to see if they were the type of ENP supplication specified by the requester before a record could be generated from the results of these manual searches. The Commissioner considered that this would be a substantial and unreasonable interference with the Board's other work, and that section 10(1)(c) applied to such records.
Our Reference: 99337
Dear Mr X
I refer to your application, under the Freedom of Information (FOI) Act, for a review of the decisions of the Western Health Board (the Board) as communicated to you in the letter of 21 June 1999 from Dr. Sean Conroy of the Board. I apologise for the long delay in dealing with your case. Due to staff shortages and pressure of work, it has not been possible to finalise your case until now.
I have now completed my review of the Board's decision. In carrying out that review, I have had regard to the arguments made by you in your applications to the Board for review, in your application to my Office and also the submissions of the Board.
In its internal review decision the Board agreed to release all relevant records to you since the introduction of their computer system in July 1998. Subsequently the Board found that they would not be in a position to release the post-July 1998 information to you as only one month's data is retained on the computer. The Board then asked each Community Welfare Officer (CWO) in County Galway to submit a manual listing of details in all cases in which assistance for floor covering had been given from 1 July 1998 to 2 July 1999. Sixty five cases were identified - however in all cases the assistance was given to cover concrete floors only.
You submitted to the Board that you were aware of a person who had received such a payment for wooden flooring but were not in a position to reveal that person's identity. Details of payments made to another person cannot be released without their permission; this could not be sought as you were unable to identify the person. In our letter of 27 September 1999, we suggested that you ask the third party to make a FOI request on his/her own behalf and also asked you to provide any submissions for the purpose of the review within a period of three weeks. As that period has passed and I have not heard from you, I have decided to conclude my review by issuing a formal decision.
My review is concerned solely with the question of whether the decision of the Board to refuse you access to a detailed breakdown of ENP payments in respect of wooden floors, and also a detailed breakdown of "Other ENP" payments, was correct. The review does not look at whether the Board exceeded its guidelines for the allocation of assistance - it is solely concerned with the release (or otherwise) of records.
The Board has given you statistical information regarding the numbers of cases where assistance for floor covering was provided. It has submitted to my Office that all records are held in individual customer files, with all applications, including ENP applications, in chronological order. The actual individual files are held by the relevant CWO in alphabetical order in their own office. Computerisation of the Board's records commenced in 1998. As outlined to you in a letter from Priya Prendergast, General Manager, Community Services, WHB, dated 06 July 1999, the Board says it cannot produce a computerised listing of cases by name, other than in relation to the most recent month available. The system can provide historical numerical data on ENPs, but cannot provide a detailed breakdown of the corresponding names and addresses - hence all the Board was able to provide you with was a numerical analysis of the applications. According to the Board, no computerised record of the information you require exists.
The Board contends that it has supplied all relevant records that are available to it. The records now at issue either do not exist or can only be created by the Board spending considerable time and expense on the task. In effect, the Board appears to be relying on Section 10(1)(a) and Section 10(1)(c) of the FOI Act in refusing you access to the records.
Section 10 (1) of the FOI Act states that a public body may refuse to grant a request if:
"(a) the record concerned does not exist or cannot be found after all reasonable steps to ascertain its whereabouts have been taken;
(c) in the opinion of the head, granting the request would....cause a substantial and unreasonable interference with or disruption of the other work of the public body concerned."
I take this latter situation to include a situation in which a record which would meet a requester's requirements may not actually exist but where it might be possible for the public body to compile a record from data available to them. However, in such a situation, one would have to consider whether the time and expense involved in compiling the record would interfere substantially with the other work of the body and whether it would be reasonable in that situation to expect the public body to compile the record.
The specific decisions of the Board which are at issue are:
(a) The decision to withhold records in relation to a detailed breakdown of payments made in Co. Galway under the Exceptional Needs Payments (ENP) Scheme in respect of floor covering for wooden floors as opposed to the covering of concrete floors. Further to this the Board found that they were not in a position to release to you details of an unspecified recipient in the Galway area who you claim received assistance under the ENP scheme for the covering of a wooden floor.
(b) The decision to withhold records giving a detailed analysis of payments made in Co. Galway, under the same scheme, which are designated as "Other ENP" i.e. miscellaneous payments which do not come under a particular category.
Regarding the Board's refusal to grant you access to a detailed breakdown of all ENP payments made in respect of the covering of wooden floors, the Board says that it has taken all reasonable steps, as described above, to provide you with the requested details. If the Board were to take any further action, it would have to sift through the files of hundreds of applicants, looking for an application for an ENP for floor covering. The application would then have to be looked at to see if it comes into the category that you are interested in. A record would then have to be generated from the results of these manual searches. I accept that this would cause a "substantial and unreasonable interference with or disruption of the other work" of the Board.
Regarding your request regarding the records of the person who you say received an ENP for covering a wooden floor, the Board says that without a name, that person cannot be identified. Given that the Board cannot identify this person from computer records, they would have to carry out an extensive search of every Supplementary Welfare Allowance file in their possession. The Board contends this would pose a substantial and unreasonable interference with its work, and I accept the Board's arguments that this is the case.
The final issue is that of your request for a detailed breakdown of "Other ENP". You have already been advised of the total numbers of payments made on a monthly basis from October 1998 to February 1999. The Board again puts forward the submission that the only way in which this data could be gathered would be on the basis of manual analysis. Again, I accept that this would cause a substantial and unreasonable interference with the other work of the Board.
I note that the Board had already made a considerable effort in trying to assist you with your request. In addition to the CWOs compiling a list from their manual records, I note that the Board held a lengthy meeting with you in a bid to answer your questions. I consider these to be reasonable attempts to assist you with your query and I conclude that the Board is justified in withholding the records on the basis of Sections 10(1)(a) and 10(1)(c) of the FOI Act.
Having completed my review under Section 34 of the Act, I hereby affirm the decision of the Board not to release a detailed breakdown of all payments made under the ENP scheme under the category of floor covering. I also affirm its decision to refuse to release the records which you were seeking in relation to ENP payments made to an unspecified person under this category. With regard to your request of a detailed breakdown of "Other Exceptional Needs" Payments between October 1998 and February 1999, I affirm the decision of the Board to withhold the records.
A party to a review, or any other person affected by a decision of the Commissioner following a review, may appeal to the High Court on a point of law arising from the decision. Such an appeal must be initiated not later than 4 weeks from the date of this letter.