The Freedom of Information Act 2000
The Freedom of Information Act 2000 provides individuals with a statutory right to access information which is held by pubic authorities.
Schedule 1 of the Freedom of Information Act provides a list of bodies which will be deemed public authorities which includes the following:
- Government Departments
- Local Authorities
- Bodies operated by the NHS – this includes Hospitals, doctors, dentists, opticians, pharmacists etc
- Academic Institutions – schools, colleges, universities
- The police
- The House of Commons
- The House of Lords
- The Northern Ireland Assembly
- The National Assembly for Wales
- The Post Office
- The National Gallery
- The Parole Board
A full list can be found in Schedule 1 of the Act.
Public Authorities named for certain parts of their work
The Freedom of Information Act 2000 also prescribes that certain other organizations can be deemed to be public authorities in relation to certain relevant parts of their work or operations. The Act provides the following ways that this can happen.
By order of the Secretary of State if any body or the holder of any office satisfies certain prescribed conditions
By order or the Secretary of State in respect to a body that satisfies these certain conditions and also appears to exercise functions of a public nature or provides a service which is a specific function of a public body which the obligation has been taken up on grounds of a contract
An entity which falls under the definition of a publicly owned company
Publication of Information
Public authorities are expected to provide the information by one of two ways:
- Through a publication scheme
- In response to a request made through the general right of access.
There is a statutory right created by the Act to access both personal and non-personal information. Furthermore the Act also provides a right to be made aware as to whether certain information exists.
Model Publication Scheme
Following the Publication Scheme Development and Maintenance Initiative the Information Commissioners Office has now introduced a model publication scheme that should have been adopted by all public sector organizations from the 1st January 2009.
Following this each public sector organization should produce a guide concerning the information it holds. This information must be easily identifiable and easily accessed by the general public.
There is a legal right conferred by the Act to request any information held by a public authority. A request can be made in relation to any information you think that the public authority may hold but only in relation to recorded information. The public authority must therefore have a record of the information to be able to provide you with details of it. You may phrase the request for information in the form of a question but they will not give you an answer if to answer it they need to create new information or to give an opinion which is not recorded. To avoid disappointment and wasting time you must clearly state what information you are requesting.
A response must be provided within 20 working days of the application. If a fee is charged the period of 20 working days may be extended up to three months dependant on when the fee is paid.
Under Section 9 of the Freedom of Information Act if the public authority is intending to charge a fee for the provision of the information then they must serve the applicant with a fees notice. The fee cannot be more than the maximum fee which is specified by regulation 6 of the Fees Regulations or a fee permitted by any other form of legislation.
The fee notice should also specify that the public authority is exempt from disclosing the information until the fee is paid.
Will my request be granted?
As previously stated the request will only be granted if the relevant public authority has the information on record. If they do not they can simply inform you that they do not have that information and in some cases may inform you which public authority does in fact hold that information.
The Freedom of Information Act contains specific exemptions when a public authority does not have to make information which it has on record available to members of the general public.
- Information Intended to be Published
If the information is intended to be published the Freedom of Information Act states that the information does not have to be made available until the intended date of publication.
- National Security, Defence, International Relations
Certain Information will be exempt from disclosure if it is in the interests of national security, concerns the defence of Great Britain or it maintains international relations which will be prejudiced if the information is disclosed.
- The Economy
If information that if it is disclosed could prejudice the economic interests of the economic interest of the United kingdom or the financial interests of any administration within the United Kingdom, that information will be considered exempt from disclosure.
- Investigations and proceedings conducted by public authorities / Law Enforcement
If a public authority holds information for the purpose of investigating a criminal investigation then that information will be considered exempt from the duty of disclosure. Similarly if certain information once disclosed could prejudice law enforcement matters or investigations that information will also be deemed exempt.
- Government Policy / Conduct of Public Affairs / Communications with the Royal Family
Information concerning government policy, concerned with the effective conduct of public affairs and information which concerns communications with the Royal Family will all be considered exempt from disclosure under the Act.
Are the exemptions only concerned with legal or national issues?
In some cases personal information cannot be disclosed if this would breach the terms of the Data Protection Act 1998. Personal Information which is part of a professional privilege, for example that which passes between a solicitor and client or a doctor and patient is exempt from being disclosed under the Act.
The Freedom of Information Act provides a full and comprehensive list of exemptions.
The Freedom of Information Act is enforced by the Information Commissioner as is also the case with the Data Protection Act 1998. If an applicant who is not provided with access to information which they have requested from a public authority then the first port of call for the applicant is with the public authorities internal complaints procedure. If they have done this and have still not been supplied with the requisite information then the Information Commissioner may serve an enforcement notice on the relevant public authority.
It is a legal order which specifies that the public authority has not complied with its obligations under the Freedom of Information Act and for them thus to comply with the act. It will often be issued in cases where there has been continued or systematic non-compliance with the Act.
The notice will specify the following four things:
- What the Public Authority has failed to do
- The reasons why the Information Commissioner has come to this conclusion
- The steps the public authority needs to take in order to comply with the Act
- The timescale for which this needs to be done.