The Freedom of Information Act was passed into law in the year 2000, this followed many years of work to make the act a reality by campaign groups, however the full provisions of the act did not come into force until 2005.
There are two functions to the Act, these are for a ‘public authority’ to routinely publish information and they must also respond to requests for information.
In terms of the FOI Act there is no definition of a ‘public authority’ but listed in Schedule 1 is a list of bodies and organisations it covers, although this is not a complete lists as more have been added by other legislation and many wide groups, such as schools, and councils, are grouped under the act. In total it is thought there are around 100,000 major and minor public sector bodies, which are covered by the act.
The Act of Parliament means any member of the public can request information from a public authority and by law they have to reply saying whether they hold the information and then disclose it. The act gives every person the ability to ask for information, which would not otherwise by published by a public authority. Only information, which is held by a public authority is covered under the act, they do no have to gather new information to respond to a request. The information can be in any of the following formats printed documents, computer files, letters, emails, photographs, and sound or video recordings.
The Office of the Information Commission (ICO) governs the FOI Act as well as other duties involving the management of Data Protection issues.
When responding to requests there are a number of exemptions, which the public authorities can apply to meaning, they do not have to disclose the information. These exemptions range from details to do with confidentiality, business interests, issues of national security and a cost/time limit exemption.
In each case where an exemption is applied to a Freedom of Information request the authority has to explain why it has been applied. Some exemptions are open to a ‘public interest’ test and others are absolute exemptions. To find out more about the exemptions see our post here.
Under the Act authorities have a period of 20 working days to reply with the disclosure of information or the reasons why it is not going to be disclosed. If they are refusing to disclose the information under one of the exemptions with the public interest defence then they are entitled to more time to provide these reasons. Often many authorities, due to the volume of requests and complexities fulfilling them, will take longer than the 20 working days a response is required in. It’s possible for the Information Commissioner to issue warnings to a public authority, which routinely fails to respond to requests on time. The ICO in extreme cases may take the public authority to court, however this is very rare.
As well as responding to requests for information under the Act public authorities are also required to publish information on a regular basis. Each authority must have a publication scheme, which sets out the information it routinely publishes. The ICO provides a model publication scheme detailing the information, which must be published routinely, authorities are free to add to this but must publish the minimum information set out by the scheme. The publication scheme should be made by each authority on its website, or promptly by request.
Now you know some detail about the Freedom of Information Act it is possible to make a request. Read our How to make Freedom of Information request page to learn how to do so. (coming soon)
More reading on the FOI act: