The Freedom of Information Act explained
Employment and HR lawyer Sinead McCracken explains the basics of The Freedom of Information Act.
What is the Freedom of Information Act?
The Freedom of Information Act 2000 came fully into force in January 2005.
It replaced the former Public Records Act 1958 (amended by the Public Records Act 1967).
The purpose of the Freedom of Information Act is to provide public access to information held by public authorities in two ways:
1. Public authorities are obliged to publish certain information about their activities; and
2. Members of the public are entitled to request information from public authorities.
The Freedom of Information Act covers any recorded information held by a public authority in England, Wales and Northern Ireland. Information held by Scottish public authorities comes under the Freedom of Information (Scotland) Act 2002.
The aims of the Freedom of Information Act are to make public authorities accountable for their actions; to encourage openness; and to facilitate more public trust and confidence in public sector bodies.
Who are the public authorities under the Freedom of Information Act?
Public authorities are government departments, local authorities, the NHS, state-funded schools and police forces under the Freedom of Information Act.
Which organisations are not covered by the Freedom of Information Act?
Every organisation who receives public money is not necessarily a public authority. For example, it will not cover some charities who receive grants; and certain private sector organisations that perform public functions.
However, sometimes it can apply in respect of functions which are essentially public functions provided in return for public funding.
What is meant by recorded information?
Recorded information includes printed documents, computer files, letters, emails, photographs, sound or video recordings.
This should not be confused with any personal data which an organisation may hold such as, health records or employment records. This type of request should be a subject access request under the Data Protection Act 2018 (in accordance with EU legislation, the General Data Protection Regulation 2016/679).
What are the principles of the Freedom of Information Act?
The main principle is that people have a right to know about the activities of public authorities and it means that:
• everybody has a right to access official information;
• an applicant (the requester) does not need to provide a reason for wanting the information;
• you must treat all requests for information equally except under some circumstances (the exceptions where a request can be refused are outlined below);
• you should treat all requesters for freedom of information equally i.e - you should only disclose information under the Freedom of Information Act if you would disclose it to anyone else who asked.
Are you covered by the Freedom of Information Act?
The Freedom of Information Act only covers public authorities. You can check the Freedom of Information Act itself for a list of the bodies who are classed as “public authorities” in this context, contained within Schedule 1. Some bodies are listed by name, e.g the Health and Safety Executive; and some are listed by type, e.g parish councils or maintained schools.
Section 5 of the Freedom of Information Act gives the Secretary of State the power to designate further bodies as public authorities. You can always check the latest position of this at http://www.legislation.gov.uk. A number of bodies are only covered for some information they hold, e.g GPs, dentists and other health practitioners only have to provide information about their NHS work.
Purely private employee information, even if on a work computer or email account, would not be covered by the Freedom of Information Act.
Who can make a Freedom of Information request?
The simple answer is anyone. They do not even need to be a UK citizen or resident and requests can also be made by organisations such as, a newspaper, a campaign group or a company.
Any requests should be sent to the public authority they think will hold that information; and that public authority is then responsible for responding to any request.
What are your obligations under the Freedom of Information Act?
Every public authority is required to have a publication scheme approved by the Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO).
The scheme needs to outline your commitment to make certain classes of information routinely available e.g – policies and procedures, minutes of meetings, annual reports and financial information.
Many public authorities choose to put a publication scheme on their website. The key is making it available quickly and easily; and all staff should be made aware of your publication scheme.
The ICO has created a model publication scheme to be used by all public authorities which is a short two-page document which organisations can use to help proactively publish information which may be commonly asked for: saving time and costs when responding to a request.
Part 2 coming soon...
For more information on The Freedom of Information Act please contact Sinead McCracken at firstname.lastname@example.org.
About the Author
Sinead McCracken is a trainee solicitor at Burnetts.
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