Landholdings of Merton College

Robert Miller made this Freedom of Information request to Merton College, Oxford

This request has been closed to new correspondence from the public body. Contact us if you think it ought be re-opened.

The request was successful.

Robert Miller

Dear Merton College, Oxford,

could you please release a list or table of all land or real property owned by Merton College Oxford, apart from the main college site at Merton Street Oxford.

Yours faithfully,

Robert Miller

Clifford Webb,

Dear Robert Miller

We do not respond to FoI requests unless an address is provided as required by statute and in this case the information requested is exempt from disclosure because it is or could be prejudicial to commercial interests.

Information about the College's landholdings are contained in the financial statements at http://www.ox.ac.uk/about_the_university...

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Dear Clifford Webb,

According to guidance by the Ministry of Justice and the Information Commissioner's Office, a requester is not obliged to provide a postal address, an email address is sufficient. See http://www.justice.gov.uk/guidance/foi-p... and http://www.ico.gov.uk/upload/documents/l...

There is no indication in the Freedom of Information Act 2000 that a physical / postal address is required.

I note that you propose to refuse the release of the information sought because of the prejudice to commercial interests provision. This does not meet the requirements of a Refusal Notice per Section 17 of the Freedom of Information Act.

In particular, you must formally

1) confirm whether the records requested are held by the College (unless you apply an exemption which allows you to "neither confirm nor deny" that requests are held, which you must formally specify as well)

2) outline why you do not release the records, with direct reference to a section of the Freedom of Information Act which exempts these records from release.

3) if required by the exemption you use (i.e. unless it is an absolute exemption), conduct a Public Interest Test to determine whether the public interest favours disclosure or not

4) outline the internal appeals procedure used by the college and remind me of my right of a complaint to the Information Commissioner.

I hope that you will be able to send me a formal response to this request by e-mail to this address no later than the 20th working day after I submitted my request.

Yours sincerely,

Robert Miller

Clifford Webb,

Dear Robert Miller

Your interpretation of the guidance suggests that an email in the format mickey.mouse@virtualspace is an address and I do not believe this is the case since it provides neither identity nor location

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Dear Mr Webb,

I'm not quite sure why you wish to obtain proof of location - there is no such requirement in the act. There is no requirement for proof of identity either - the Act requires a name to be given (I did give that) and an address for the response to be delivered too - I gave that as well and I happened to choose electronic communication because it is more convenient for me than postal mail.

If you have time, I suggest you have a look around this site, www.whatdotheyknow.com which I use to make this request. You will note that hundreds of public authorities, including all central government departments, local authorities, higher education institutions and so forth have no problem responding to requests made through this website on a daily basis.

In fact, someone recently won a case at the Information Commissioner's Office, where the House of Commons wanted to refuse to respond to a whatdotheyknow.com address - they just wanted the requester to provide a different email address, not even a postal one. The ICO released a decision notice (FS50276715 if you want to look it up) where they stated that the provision of the Act which allows requesters to specifiy through which means of communication they would like to receive the information requested (post or email) is paramount and that authorities cannot just like or dislike an email address provided to them.

Unless you can show compelling reasons why it is not feasible for you to respond to this address, there is no possibility for you not to do so - in fact, you have the statutory duty to respond to this request.

It would really be a waste of time and money if the Information Commissioner would need to be involved in this. I encourage you to talk to other colleges or the central FOI team of the University of Oxford (which has responded many times on whatdotheyknow.com as far as I can see) before upholding your refusal further.

Yours sincerely,

Robert Miller

Clifford Webb,

Dear Mr Miller

May I first please direct you to the College’s publication scheme at http://www.merton.ox.ac.uk/aboutmerton/c...

You are of course under no obligation to refer to this when making a request, but it does inform you to whom requests should be addressed (your original email was misdirected and lost in spam for reasons beyond our control), and it should make clear that the College is completely aware of its statutory obligations, including all those specifically alluded to in your most recent and earlier emails.

With respect to addresses, the Act provided that requests should be from a named applicant in writing and provide an address for correspondence. (Taken literally this would mean that an illiterate vagrant who wished to make a request would not be able to do so, but was this the government‘s intention?) If the request is not accompanied by an address for correspondence it will be impossible to answer it. Did the government think it was necessary to make a stipulation that is unnecessary or did it intend that only requests from identifiable sources should be entertained? The question of whether email addresses were correspondence addresses arose later. The government or its agents said they were. However, it did not make any distinction between identifiable addresses such as @merton and unidentifiable addresses such as @gmail. The preceding question therefore remains unanswered. I have made this observation to numerous persons who have raised requests without divulging an identifiable address and, other than in one case (where I heard nothing further), they have invariably accepted this is a substantive issue and have provided me with a residential or institutional address (which might be an institutional email address, such as my own).

This clearly is a substantive issue because it is a long step from a written request from a named applicant providing a correspondence address to a virtual address. It is of course possible for the former to emanate from a person using a pseudonym from a correspondence address, but it is not very likely. With regard to a virtual address, there is no way to respond other than electronically. There is no way to validate that the correspondent is who s/he says s/he is or where s/he resides or where, ultimately, the response will be delivered. Now, I realise that there may be very good reasons why an enquirer might wish to preserve anonymity, and I am fully aware that all requests must be treated on their merits without reference to the status or motivation of the enquirer. What I do say is that it is a very long step from physical delivery of a response to a postal enquiry to electronic response (the only response possible) to an electronic enquiry which is essentially anonymous. If this was the government’s intention then we are of course bound to it, but it is not a matter beyond doubt and, so far as I am aware, has not been tested in the courts. I therefore would not regard further consideration of this matter as a waste of the Information Commissioner’s time, as you put it. I will of course study FS50276715, but if the circumstances are precisely as you say then I think it is an extremely grave matter, and I will be writing to the Information Commissioner in any case (on the point of principle involved, rather than on your particular enquiry).

I am in the middle of a course of eye surgery, which I hope will be completed tomorrow. All going well, I will return to this correspondence next week, but may be a little slow, so I would request your forbearance, since I cannot delegate the task to anybody else. This is not a central or local government department or a large public corporation that can deploy public funds to assist with processing FOIA requests.

Yours sincerely,

Clifford Webb

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Clifford Webb,

1 Attachment

Dear Mr Miller

I have considered your request to be provided with “ a list or table of all land or real property owned by Merton College Oxford, apart from the main college site at Merton Street Oxford”.

The site at Merton Street houses the main College buildings including the Library, Chapel, Hall and Lodge and a number of College members reside on this site, but you should note that the majority of College members reside in College properties in Holywell and St Cross parishes within the City of Oxford and I have taken it that you do not seek information on such properties.

In taking account of the information that should be provided to you I have had to balance public interest disclosure against the commercial interests of the College. With regard to the former it is not clear and may be a matter of opinion what information is a matter of public interest and what is not. With regard to the latter it is the case that the College’s interests would or could be prejudiced by the disclosure of information such as OS references or addresses which would be of interest to and could be exploited by developers, adjoining owners and others. It is also possible that the College might owe a duty of confidentiality to tenants or other third parties. I have taken these points into account when compiling the attached list. Please note that I have counted all commercial tenancies as a matter of completeness but many of them are to all intents and purposes contingent or immaterial (for example, sub stations, roadside verges, tracks, bus shelters, car parks and public playing fields and woodland).

Yours sincerely,

Clifford Webb

Colm Howard-Lloyd left an annotation ()

This is an extraordinary exchange of emails. The assertion appears to be that their interpretation of the act, and the spirit in which it is intended, is correct and that others including the Information Commissioner are wrong.

There is clear guidance from the Commissioner on the requirements of Section 8(1)(b) at http://www.ico.gov.uk/upload/documents/l...

"An email address also satisfies the requirement of section 8(1)(b) that the applicant should provide an address for correspondence. Support for this is found in the FOIA as follows:
• a request for information can be made by email.
• the access regime is a relatively informal one – for example the applicant does not have to state formally that the request is being made under the FOIA."

It will be interesting to see if this view persists of whether Merton College accept that it is in their own interest to be helpful rather than obstructive.

One to watch.