Plain English Guide to Freedom of Information Launched
The Information Commissioner has recently published a new guide to freedom of information described as a “plain English guide”.
At the end of January 2012, the Information Commissioner published the new guide to freedom of information described as a “plain English guide”, which intends to help public authorities better understand what the Act says and how to apply it. The new guide is published following the commencement of the post-legislative review of the Freedom of Information Act which is set to consider how Freedom of Information legislation should develop in this country.
The Information Commissioner has acknowledged, in his comments about the new Guide, that interpreting and applying the requirements of the Freedom of Information Act properly can be challenging. His aim in putting together this new plain English guide is to “demystify” the Freedom of Information Act and make the legislation “more user friendly and intelligible”. He is hoping that the Guide will be used by FOI officers as, to some extent, a reference resource when they are considering how to respond to the requests they receive.
Users of the Guide will note that there has been awarded the “Clear English Standard” by the Plain Language Commission. As you will know, the Plain Language Commission “promotes clear and concise communication in documents and on websites” and, in relation to this Guide, has confirmed the Information Commissioner’s view that it describes Freedom of Information obligations in a “clear, logical and straightforward way”.
So What Does The Guide Do?
It starts with a description of the background to Freedom of Information legislation in this country, looking at the original white paper (“Your Right To Know”) and the building blocks for the governmental transparency agenda, which (despite Tony Blair having described the enactment of the Freedom of Information Act as one of his biggest regrets) is an ongoing priority of the coalition government. The Guide emphasises that people have a right to know about the activities of public authorities unless there is a good reason for them not to.
The Guide considers who is covered by the Freedom of Information Act (which as readers will know is not always clear – the Information Tribunal has recently ruled that the Duchy of Cornwall is a public authority under the Environmental Information Regulations), when information is covered by the Freedom of Information Act (and this, too, has recently been the subject of uncertainty in relation to the personal email accounts of public servants, for example; it is certain that further categories of information will be considered going forward) and who can make a Freedom of Information request.
The Guide then goes on to describe the obligations of public authorities under the Freedom of Information Act, including the duty proactively to publish relevant information. As readers will know, the Information Commissioner is currently consulting on the current publication scheme format; it is likely that the extent of the information currently required to be published proactively by public authorities is set to change. Forward thinking public authorities might already be considering publishing information which they are currently not required to set out in their publication schemes, on the basis that the expense of dealing with Freedom of Information requests in the context of a transparency agenda which appears likely to require increasing openness, makes it a good business decision proactively to publish any information which the public authority believes would have to be disclosed in relation to an enquiry rather than waiting for the enquiry or request to be received.
The Guide considers copyright and intellectual property issues, which as readers will know in relation to certain public authorities (primarily universities and other education institutions which fund and publish research) represent a significant issue although, in respect of intellectual property the Guide simply confirms that the act “does not affect copyright and intellectual property rights that give owners the right to protect their original work against commercial exploitation by others”.
Does It Contain Practical Advice?
The Guide contains practical advice concerning the steps an organisation needs to take when a request is received, when an authority can refuse a request and what happens when someone complains. Links to existing ICO Guidance are provided (in the electronic version of the document). In general the Guide is very clear and contains practical examples to illustrate the points being made.
It goes without saying, however, that the Guide is promulgated by the Information Commissioner’s office and therefore reflects, in terms of suggested responses, the Information Commissioner’s interpretation of the freedom of information legislative framework. As the available decision notices testify, the legislation is open to interpretation and most requests for information will need to be considered in the context of the nature of the information requested. There may be scope for the requirements to be interpreted differently in different factual contexts.