Freedom of information: an introduction
Under the Freedom of Information (FoI) Act, anyone can request (and, subject to certain exemptions, receive) information held by a public authority.
A request for information must be made in writing by letter, email or fax, provided it is received in legible form and is capable of being used for subsequent reference. You do not have to say why you want the information. For example, you might want to know how much money your council spent on fire extinguishers in a year or the salary band of a particular member of staff in central government.
The kind of information you might want to request could include reports, documents or the minutes of meetings.
Subject to certain exemptions, the public authority should state in writing whether it holds the requested information and should provide any available information in writing to the person who sent the request within 20 working days. If the public authority issues a fees notice the time limit for responding stops running while it awaits payment of the fee for providing the information. In some circumstances a request may be refused, in which case a refusal notice is issued to the requestor, explaining why. This must also be sent to the requestor within 20 working days.
How to make a request under the freedom of information law
To make a request for information from a public sector organisation, you should make the request in writing and send it to the relevant contact at the public authority. You must include your name and correspondence address on the request. You should also describe the information requested.
You don’t have to mention the FoI Act, but it may remind the recipient of their obligation to reply.
How do I respond to a request for information held by my employer?
Every public authority must have a ‘publication scheme’ which describes the information it publishes, the manner in which it publishes it and whether the material is available free of charge or for payment of a fee.
If you receive a request as an employee of a public authority, reply to the requestor and let them know you have received it. You should then consider the following questions:
1. Is the request valid under the law?
It is valid if it is in writing and includes the name and address of the requester and describes the information requested.
2. Is the requester entitled to the information?
In most cases it doesn’t matter who the requester is or why they want the information.
You can also refuse to provide the information if it is likely to cause distress or irritation without good reason, or if it will cost the organisation too much money to retrieve.
Read more about refusing requests below.
3. Do you understand the request?
If the requester does not provide clear information on what they need from you, you must notify the requester that you require further information and you should help them to describe the information that they are seeking. According to the relevant code of practice, this could involve providing an outline of the different kinds of information which might meet the terms of the request, providing access to detailed catalogues and indexes, where these are available, to help the applicant ascertain the nature and extent of the information held by the authority and providing a general response to the request setting out options for further information which could be provided on request.
4. Do you need to give any advice or assistance?
You have a duty under the FoI Act to help provide advice and assistance.
5. Do you hold the information?
If you do not hold the information you must let the requestor know within 20 working days that you do not have this information.
You could refer the requester to an authority which does hold the information or transfer the request to the other authority yourself.
Environmental information regulations (EIRs)
Environmental information regulations (EIRs) are similar to the FoI Act, but give even greater access to information covering:
- the state of the air, water, land, landscape and living organisms;
- the quantity of energy, noise, waste and radiation in the environment.
When an FoI request can be refused
A public authority may refused a request where a specific exemption applies or where the information requested is covered by a “qualified exemption” and the public interest in non-disclosure outweighs the public interest in disclosure.
An FoI request can also be refused if it is likely to cause distress or irritation without good reason. This is called a “vexatious request”.
Authorities can refuse requests if finding and releasing the information will cost them more than £450 (or £600 for central government). The organisation can decide to let you have the information if you pay the full cost of retrieving it.
If you split a large request into several smaller requests or submit a co-ordinated request to different people in a team, the authority can refuse it if the total cost goes over the cost limit. After 60 working days you can ask for more information on the same issue.
You can challenge an FoI refusal by seeking an internal review by the public authority or, if that fails, making an application to the information commissioner.
When can information be withheld by a public authority?
An authority cannot withhold the whole of a document just because part of it cannot be shared. It must supply you with all the information that can be shared. They could do this by providing a copy with the exempt information blacked out or by deleting the exempt information and printing the rest.
- The Freedom of Information (FoI) Act was put in place to allow anyone, anywhere in the world, to request information held by a UK public authority.
- Anyone can request information from any public authority and they do not need to say why they want the information.
- Public authorities must generally respond to information requests within 20 working days.
- A request can be refused if finding the information would cost a public authority too much money.