Freedom of Information Act 2000
Copyright acknowledgment [The material below is from https://ico.org.uk/for-organisations/guide-to-freedom-of-information/what-is-the-foi-act]
The Freedom of Information Act 2000 provides public access to information held by public authorities.
It does this in two ways:
- public authorities are obliged to publish certain information about their activities; and
- members of the public are entitled to request information from public authorities.
The Act covers any recorded information that is held by a public authority in England, Wales and Northern Ireland, and by UK-wide public authorities based in Scotland. Information held by Scottish public authorities is covered by Scotland’s own Freedom of Information (Scotland) Act 2002.
Public authorities include government departments, local authorities, the NHS, state schools and police forces. However, the Act does not necessarily cover every organisation that receives public money. For example, it does not cover some charities that receive grants and certain private sector organisations that perform public functions.
Recorded information includes printed documents, computer files, letters, emails, photographs, and sound or video recordings.
The Act does not give people access to their own personal data (information about themselves) such as their health records or credit reference file. If a member of the public wants to see information that a public authority holds about them, they should make a subject access request under the Data Protection Act 1998.
What is the Freedom of Information Act for?
The government first published proposals for freedom of information in 1997. In the white paper Your Right to Know, the government explained that the aim was a more open government based on mutual trust.
"Openness is fundamental to the political health of a modern state. This White Paper marks a watershed in the relationship between the government and people of the United Kingdom. At last there is a government ready to trust the people with a legal right to information."
Public authorities spend money collected from taxpayers, and make decisions that can significantly affect many people’s lives. Access to information helps the public make public authorities accountable for their actions and allows public debate to be better informed and more productive.
"Unnecessary secrecy in government leads to arrogance in governance and defective decision-making." - Your Right to Know
Access to official information can also improve public confidence and trust if government and public sector bodies are seen as being open. In a 2011 survey carried out on behalf of the Information Commissioner’s Office, 81% of public bodies questioned agreed that the Act had increased the public’s trust in their organisation.
What are the principles behind the Freedom of Information Act?
The main principle behind freedom of information legislation is that people have a right to know about the activities of public authorities, unless there is a good reason for them not to. This is sometimes described as a presumption or assumption in favour of disclosure. The Act is also sometimes described as purpose and applicant blind.
This means that:
- everybody has a right to access official information. Disclosure of information should be the default – in other words, information should be kept private only when there is a good reason and it is permitted by the Act;
- an applicant (requester) does not need to give you a reason for wanting the information. On the contrary, you must justify refusing them information;
- you must treat all requests for information equally, except under some circumstances relating to vexatious requests and personal data (see When can we refuse a request? for details on these). The information someone can get under the Act should not be affected by who they are. You should treat all requesters equally, whether they are journalists, local residents, public authority employees, or foreign researchers; and
- because you should treat all requesters equally, you should only disclose information under the Act if you would disclose it to anyone else who asked. In other words, you should consider any information you release under the Act as if it were being released to the world at large.
This does not prevent you voluntarily giving information to certain people outside the provisions of the Act.
Are we covered by the Freedom of Information Act?
The Act only covers public authorities. Schedule 1 of the Act contains a list of the bodies that are classed as public authorities in this context. Some of these bodies are listed by name, such as the Health and Safety Executive or the National Gallery. Others are listed by type, for example government departments, parish councils, or maintained schools. Executive agencies are classed as part of their parent government department; for example, the DVLA is covered by the Act because it is part of the Department for Transport. However, arm’s-length bodies are not considered part of the department sponsoring them, and they are listed individually in Part VI of Schedule 1.
Section 5 of the Act gives the Secretary of State the power to designate further bodies as public authorities. If in doubt, you can check the latest position at www.legislation.gov.uk.
Certain bodies are only covered for some of the information they hold, for example:
- GPs, dentists and other health practitioners only have to provide information about their NHS work;
- the BBC, Channel 4 and the Welsh channel S4C (the public service broadcasters) do not have to provide information about journalistic, literary or artistic activities; and
- some bodies that have judicial functions do not have to provide information about these functions.
In addition to the bodies listed in the Act, with effect from 1 September 2013 the definition of a public authority now also covers companies which are wholly owned:
- by the Crown;
- by the wider public sector; or
- by both the Crown and the wider public sector.
These terms are defined in more detail in the amended section 6 of FOIA.
For example, some local authorities have transferred responsibility for services (eg social housing) to a private company (sometimes known as an arm’s-length management organisation or ALMO), which is wholly owned by the local authority. This type of company counts as a public authority in its own right and needs to respond to requests for information. Where a company is wholly owned by a number of local authorities it is also now a public authority for the purposes of FOIA.