Understanding The Freedom Of Information Act 2000 By MSB Solicitors

The Freedom of Information Act 2000 is a law that provides the public with a right of access to certain 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.

What is the  Freedom of Information Act?

The Freedom of Information Act (FoIA) is the statute which gives anyone the right to ask any public sector organisation for information they hold.

The Act covers any recorded information that is held by a public authority in England, Wales, Northern Ireland, and UK-wide public authorities in Scotland.

The FoIA is not to be confused with a request for information, otherwise known as ‘Subject Access Requests’, which permits a person to request and receive a full breakdown of all the personal data they have shared with an organisation, think email addresses, name, D.O.B, addresses, transactions. 

What public authorities must disclose information?

The FoIA contains a prescribed list of the public authorities in England, Wales and Northern Ireland which are subject to its rules. The Freedom of Information (Scotland) Act 2002 contains a similar list solely for Scotland. 

The list includes government departments, local authorities, educational institutions, publicly owned companies, and other public bodies, such as the Police. 

What information is accessible under the FoIA?

Any information, so long as it is does not fall under the exemptions listed below, can be requested under the FoIA. This includes any contracts for the supply of goods or services, the results of any anonymous surveys, and responses to regulatory enquiries, such as planning applications. 

In terms of how information is held by the public authority, even if a third-party, such as a private contractor, holds the information on behalf of the public authority, it is still deemed as held by them and must therefore be disclosed upon request. 

What are the common exemptions from disclosure?

Examples of the most common exemptions are:

  • Information accessible by other means

If the information is accessible by other means other than being provided by the public authority, then it is exempt. However, the public authority must direct the applicant to where they can find the information. 

  • Personal information that is subject to data protection law

Public authorities are also subject to the UK GDPR and Data Protection Act 2018. For this reason, information which contains information of a personal nature is exempt. The public authority can, however, provide the information with the relevant personal details redacted from it. 

  • Information that relates to the formulation of government policy

This is an exemption which is only available to central government bodies, such as the Home Office or the Department of Work and Pensions. 

  • Trade secrets and other commercially sensitive information

 A public authority may rely on this exemption where disclosure is likely to prejudice the commercial interests of any person, including the public authority itself. This exemption is particularly relevant if the information is being sought from a publicly owned company, as the shareholders of the company may be prejudice were certain information to be disclosed. 

How long does a public authority have to deal with a request and is there any other reason why it would refuse to disclose information?

The public authority must comply with a request within 20 working days of receiving it, though some public authorities are permitted an extended period to respond (such as schools where the standard time limit is 20 school days, or 60 working days if this is shorter). A public authority is not required to comply with a request if the cost of doing so would exceed the ‘appropriate limit’, which is currently set at £600.

A public authority can also refuse to respond to a request if it is considered vexatious, meaning it has been submitted with the intention of causing disruption or distress to the receiver. Additionally, a public authority is not required to respond if the same or a similar request is made repeatedly.

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