With the introduction of the Freedom of Information Act 2000, members of the public and organisations can access details held by public bodies like never before.
Here are some of the main questions on how the FOI operates and how to use it.
Q. What kind of organisations are covered by the Act?
A. More than 100,000 public bodies fall under the requirements of the Act including Government departments and agencies, local councils, the NHS including GPs, dentists and opticians, schools, colleges and universities, police, armed forces, regulators, quangos, museums, advisory committees, publicly-owned companies, the BBC and Channel 4 (except journalistic materials), the Houses of Parliament and devolved assemblies. Some private bodies that perform public functions may also be brought under the Act.
Q. How can I apply for information?
A. Anyone can apply under the act and there is no need to give your reasons for wanting the information. You can write, email or fax your request to the relevant authority. Requests for information under the Environmental Information Regulations 2004 (EIR) can be made orally. Applicants should describe the information they want and the preferred format they want it in but there is no need to mention either the act or EIR, although it is advisable.
Q. How long do authorities have to respond to a request?
A. The Act states requests should be dealt with ‘promptly’ and certainly within 20 days of receiving it. If a body has the information readily to hand and is planning to release it, it is expected to do so immediately. Authorities may be allowed extensions where it is being considered whether to release or withhold the information ‘in the public interest’ or where there are practical difficulties such as school holidays, in-depth archives or frontline military units. Under the EIR, another 20 days may be granted if the request is complex or voluminous.
Q. Will I be charged for the information?
A. In most cases, no. If handling the request costs less than £600 for central government or £450 for others, there can be no charge for the information, except for copying and postage. If the process is likely to exceed those limits, the relevant body can either make a charge or refuse the request. There is no cost limit for requests under EIR and there may be a ‘reasonable charge’.
Q. Does it matter who I send the request to?
A. Any request for information to an organisation as described above is a formal request and should be dealt with appropriately no matter who it is sent to. It does not matter if they are not the original creators of the information because if they hold it or have a copy of it then it is their decision on whether to release it. It is worth remembering that many larger organisations employ FOI officers.
Q. What information can I ask for?
A. You can ask for any recorded information regardless of when it was created or who created it. You can ask for databases to be ‘interrogated’, or searched – for example how many accidents happened on a particular road over a set time period. Information held by or on behalf of the relevant authority is also covered including files held by its lawyers, scientists or researchers and authority papers held on an official’s home computer and UK embassies overseas. It is worth doing research before hand to make requests as specific as possible and to ensure the information is not already in the public domain.
Q. Is the organisation I am requesting information from required to help me?
A. Under Section 16 of the Act, all relevant authorities have a statutory duty to assist and advise anyone making a request, as far as is reasonable. Organisations should help identify what information is available if you do not know exactly it is you need. Unnecessary obstructiveness can result in warnings or action from the independent watchdog known as the Information Commissioner.
Q. Are organisations doing anything to make the process easier?
A. Authorities are required to set up ‘publication schemes’ which list the classes of information they publish or intend to. They should also state whether there is a charge for the information and all schemes have to be approved by the Information Commissioner. It is important to note such lists are not comprehensive and if the information you are requesting does not fall within one of the categories, the authority must still consider the request as normal. Details of the schemes must be readily available (most are accessible from websites) and failure to supply one could lead to enforcement action.
Q. Do authorities list all information they have released under FOI requests?
A. There is no statutory requirement but many bodies plan to run ‘disclosure logs’ which list each request and outcome, normally once the information asked for has been used. The Campaign for Freedom of Information is urging more and more bodies to follow suit.
Q. Can I be refused the information?
A. An authority should provide the information or give valid reasons for not doing so. There are a number of grounds on which a body can turn down a request which include: if it exceeds the relevant cost limits described above, if you are making an identical or ‘substantially similar’ request as one you made before without a reasonable time lapse. ‘Vexatious’ requests can be turned down, for example if a campaign group files hundreds of requests to hamper the system as a protest rather than a genuine desire for information. There are also a number of occasions where the information may be ‘exempt’ and therefore not released, however, in the main these are still subject to the ‘public interest test’ where withholding must outweigh the public interest of disclosing the information. These include if it will prejudice key areas such as defence, economy, law enforcement, health and safety etc, if it is a trade secret or could damage national security. However, there are some ‘absolute exemptions’ such as court records, personal data, if the information is already accessible or where disclosure of it is covered by other legislation.
Q. Can I appeal if turned down?
A. First you can go through the relevant authority’s own internal complaints process. If not happy, you can complain to the Information Commissioner, whose decision is legally binding. Any of the parties can appeal against decisions at the Information Tribunal and that decision can be appealed at the High Court on a point of law.
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© NEP 2005