Freedom of Information Act Summary
By Stuart Janicki • 23 Dec 2010
The Information Commissioner's Office has used the Freedom of Information Act 2000 for the first time to order an undertaking of an organisation. The undertaking was designed to assess and improve the organisation's openness and accountability in the public interest. What is the Freedom of Information Act and why does it exist?
What is the Freedom of Information Act?
The Freedom of Information Act 2000 was implemented to make public sector bodies more open and accountable. It is hoped that the public can better understand how public authorities operate by enabling greater access to information. It should enable a greater understanding about the duties of a local authority, the decisions they make and how they spend public money.
Do I need to comply with the Freedom of Information Act?
The act applies only to public authorities. If you are a private organisation, data can still be requested using a Subject Access Request under the Data Protection Act 1998.
If you are publicly funded, and your work is for the welfare of the whole population, you must comply with the Freedom of Information Act 2000. These organisations include government departments, local authorities, educational establishments, NHS GPs and dentists, police forces and health authorities.
In other words, if you are publicly funded, the public has a right to all information
What information is accessible?
The Freedom of Information Act gives any individual the right to access all recorded information held by public authorities. If you are a public body, this means any member of the public has the legal right to access all information regarding any subject matter. This could include your documents, emails, notes, videos, letters and even audio tapes.
This means the information does not have to have any association with the individual who has requested access and they do not need to provide any reason for their request.
In other words, you should be careful about what you say. Conversations and documentation should be monitored to ensure they are appropriate, with procedures in place to address any issues.
Do I have to release all information requested under the Freedom of Information Act?
Whilst the Freedom of Information Act is designed to make all information accessible, there are exemptions. These are decided using the 'public interest' test, where the public interest in withholding the information you control outweighs the public interest in releasing it. This could be, for example, when releasing information would harm national security, but there are no fixed definitions. So you would have to handle all requests on a case by case basis.
When the request concerns the personal information about the individual, then the individual will have to submit a Subject Access Request. If the information relates to a third party, the release will be based on the Data Protection Act and whether the disclosure would contravene this.
Withholding an entire document is unacceptable, if some information cannot be disclosed, an edited version should be used.
In other words, your refusal has to be valid, reasonable and explained.
How does someone request information?
You can make information public available in the form of annual reports, policy documents and financial information. This document should be described as a 'publication scheme', providing individuals an easy way to access information that you wish to disclose.
Individuals can make a formal request to your organisation to ask for information. It must be made in writing, containing the individual's name and address, clearly describing the information that they require.
How quickly should I respond to a Freedom of Information request?
If you do have a publication scheme, you should respond as quickly as possible and without delay.
With a formal Freedom of Information request, you have up to 20 days to decide whether you can disclose the information within the remit of the law. You can extend this time under certain circumstances but you should keep the individual informed and well notified.
In other words, it is useful to have a system in place that catalogues information and communications.
Can I charge for performing the request?
The act does not state how much you are able to charge an individual but if there are a lot of paper documents or other costs involved, your charges should be reasonable.
Can I refuse the request outright?
You can refuse a Freedom of Information Request for several reasons. One being that the cost of complying would exceed a limit of around £600. You can also refuse the request if you cannot identify the information the individual wants, but you should seek to work with the individual to clarify the request.
The ICO also allows for requests to be refused under vexatious circumstances, when the individual’s intent is to cause you harm or annoyance and it is not in the public interest. You can also refuse if you have already given the individual the same information recently.
In other words, be prepared to disclose information when the request is reasonable and within the remit of public interest.
Can an individual complain?
If an individual believes that your handling of their Freedom of Information Request has not been satisfactory or the information you have disclosed is unsatisfactory, a complaint can be made.
They can also complain if you have taken longer than 20 working days and failed to provide a satisfactory explanation or made excessive and unreasonable charges.
Individuals can also complain if you fail to send information in accordance with your publication scheme.
What happens after a complaint?
If you fail to deal with the complaint, or you do not have a complaints procedure, the individual can approach the Information Commissioner's Office.
Once it arrives at the ICO, a decision to deal with it will be made by the Case Reception Unit. They will decide whether they can deal with it and will respond within 14 days.
If they can deal with it, they will try to resolve the complaint by dealing with you and the individual. If it cannot be dealt with informally, the ICO will issue a decision notice. This decision notice will declare whether you have complied with the Freedom of Information Act.
At this point the ICO has the power to order the information to be released and for you to take measures to improve the way you operate in future.
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