The Freedom of Information (FOI) Act was enacted in 2000 by the Parliament of the United Kingdom to replace a 1994 code that outlined voluntary guidelines for releasing government information. The act came into full effect by 2005 and the government is currently developing a web site at data.gov.uk to disclose more information online. Its guidelines extend to England, Wales and Northern Ireland, while Scotland has its own Freedom of Information Act. Records Covered
Public authorities subject to freedom of information requests include:
- Central and local governments, including the House of Parliament
- Health services
- State schools, colleges, universities
- Other non-departmental public bodies, committees and advisory bodies such as executive agencies and regional development agencies
- Companies wholly owned by public authorities
To qualify as a public authority, an organization must be set up by the Crown, the Prime Minister, the National Assembly for Wales, a government department, or a statute. Additionally, at least one appointment to the public authority must be made by one of these government entities.
Records about the environment (pertaining to buildings, plants, trees, pollution, atmosphere, water and so forth) are under the jurisdiction of the Environmental Information Regulation, which is similar to the FOI Act but has different rules on fees, time-limits and exemptions.
Submitting a Request
Any person can make a request regardless of age or nationality. Requests should include a name, a contact address, and as much detail about the desired information as possible. Information can be requested in any reasonable form (i.e. permission to inspect records, Braille or audio format, in another language). Requests must be submitted in writing or via e-mail to the public authority that oversees the requested information.
An "appropriate limit" of 600 pounds for requests to the central government and 450 pounds for requests to other public authorities has been set as maximum for identifying, locating and retrieving requested information. If this is exceeded, the request may be refused or the requestor may be required to pay towards the cost. Requestors may be responsible for payment of photocopying and postage fees as well.
In most cases, public authorities must respond to requests within 20 working days. If the request was submitted to the wrong public authority, notification must be provided that the request has been transferred.
Should the request require additional time to fulfill, the public authority must provide notification of when the request will be completed.
Grounds for Denial
If the request is denied, the public authority must explain why the information was withheld and how to proceed with an appeal. FOI Act's absolute exemptions prevent record disclosure if the requested information:
- Is available elsewhere
- Applies to or is supplied by any Security Service body
- Involves court records, which are not are not releasable regardless of the content
- Threatens Parliamentary privilege
- Contains personal information
- Includes information obtained by a public authority in confidence
- Breaches common law, including court orders
The FOI Act also outlines "qualified exemptions," which are subject to a public interest test to determine whether the release of records would prejudice public interest. In these cases, the information will be withheld if it will be published at a future date, or if its release would:
- Harm national security, international relations, or economic interests
- Threaten the integrity of proceedings and investigations by courts or public authorities
- Interfere with law enforcement interests
- Obstruct government policy-making process, including communications between Ministers and the provision of advice by law officers
- Affect conduct of public affairs by prejudicing Cabinet deliberation
- Disclose communications with Her Majesty or the Royal Household
- Jeopardize physical or mental health or safety of someone
- Violate legal professional privilege, including lawyer/client communications and other information created for litigation
- Endanger commercial interests or trade secrets.
Appeals Process and Act Enforcement
Upon receiving a denial, the requestor may ask the public authority to internally review the decision. Should the review fail, the requestor may submit an appeal to the independent Information Commissioner within two months after the completion of the internal review. The Information Commissioner reviews complaints when public authorities:
- Failed to respond within 20 working days
- Applied an exemption or withheld information
- Refused a request on cost grounds
- Did not respond to an internal review request
Upon receiving the complaint form and supporting evidence, the Information Commission may investigate how the request was handled by the public authority and evaluate its decision. Should he decide the info was wrongly withheld, he can order its release.
The full text of the FOI Act is available online here. For more information, visit the Ministry of Justice's Freedom of Information web page here and the Information Commissioner's Office web site here.
You may also read more about freedom of information in Britain in our previous blog entries:
- The British Parliament Expenses Scandal: A Comparative Lesson in Freedom of Information Laws
- British Parliament Expense Reports Released Online, but Redacted
- British Enlist Inventor of World Wide Web to Increase Transparency of Government Data on the Internet
- Inventor of World Wide Web Launches Web Site for British Government Offering Unprecedented Public Access to Government Data