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Freedom of Information FAQs – For organisations

Q: Who can request information?

Q: What qualifies as a request for information under the Freedom of Information Act?

Q: Do we need to comply with the Freedom of Information Act?

Q: Is a company owned by more than one Public Authority wholly owned?

Q: How do we comply with the Freedom of Information Act?

Q: What is the public interest test?

Q: How quickly should we respond?

Q: What should we do if we do not hold the information?

Q: In what circumstances may we refuse a request for information?

Q: What is a ‘vexatious request’?

Q: What are the rules in the Freedom of Information Act regarding repeated requests?

Q: Does the Freedom of Information Act apply to personal data?

Q: What are the cost limits for a Freedom of Information Act request?

Q: What happens when the cost limit is not exceeded?

Q: What happens when the cost limit is exceeded?

Q: What should we do if we are proceeding with a request that exceeds the appropriate costs limit?

Q: How can we request payment?

Q: What is a publication scheme?

Q: What is a model publication scheme?

Q: Who has to have a publication scheme?

Q: What is a 'class of information'?

Q: What should we do to operate our publication scheme?

Q: What do we need to do to maintain a publication scheme?

Q: Can an authority make modifications to the model?

Q: Do authorities merging or undergoing boundary changes during 2009 need to comply?

Q: Should we show the publication scheme on the website?

Q: Should people be required to access the information through the scheme?

Q: What if we are asked to provide a copy of the scheme?

Q: What if we are asked to provide all the information in the guide?

Q: Do we need to provide an electronic link to the information through the seven classes?

Q: Can we link the classes to a classification system we already use?

Q: What if we want to omit some of the information shown in the definition documents?


Q: Who can request information?

Under the Freedom of Information Act, any individual, anywhere in the world, is able to make a request to a public authority for information. They do not have to indicate why they want the information. An applicant is entitled to be informed in writing as to whether the information is held and to have the information communicated to them or provided with an explanation why this is not being done.

Q: What qualifies as a request for information under the Freedom of Information Act?

Any request made to a public authority in writing (including those transmitted by electronic means), stating the name of the applicant, including an address for correspondence and describing the information required, qualifies as a request for information.

Q: Do we need to comply with the Freedom of Information Act?

The Freedom of Information Act only applies to public authorities as defined in the Act and includes companies that are wholly owned by public authorities.

If an organisation is unsure whether it is required to comply with the Act it should contact the Ministry of Justice who have responsibility for coverage. A basic guide to whether you are covered can be found on the website of the legistation.gov.uk website.

Q: Is a company owned by more than one Public Authority wholly owned?

Generally, a company owned by more than one public authority is not a public authority itself, and therefore is not covered.

Q: How do we comply with the Freedom of Information Act?

The Freedom of Information Act only applies to public authorities as defined by the Act itself.

Public authorities are obliged to provide information:

  • through a publication scheme; and
  • in response to requests made under the general right of access.

When responding to requests, there are set procedures that public authorities need to follow. These include:

  • the time public authorities are allowed for responding to requests;
  • the fees or amount that public authorities can charge for dealing with requests. Public authorities are not obliged to deal with requests if the costs of finding the information exceed a set amount known as the appropriate limit; and
  • public authorities need not comply with vexatious or repeated requests.

Full details of these can be found in our freedom of information section.

The Act also recognises that there are valid reasons for withholding information by setting out a number of exemptions from right to know, some of which are subject to a public interest test. For further details see our page what are the reasons to refuse a request.

Q: What is the public interest test?

The public interest test favours disclosure where a qualified exemption (or an exception) applies. In such cases, the information may be withheld only if the public authority considers that the public interest in withholding the information is greater than the public interest in disclosing it. Our awareness guidance explains how and when to apply the public interest test.

Q: How quickly should we respond?

You must inform the applicant in writing whether you hold the information requested and if so, communicate that information to the applicant, promptly, but not later than 20 working days after receipt of the request. In some circumstances a request may be refused.  If this is the case, a Refusal Notice must be issued to the applicant.  It should state what exemption has been applied and why, if the exemption is a qualified exemption then the public Interest test reasoning must also be explained. This notice must also be communicated to the applicant within the 20 working day time period.

A limited number of factors could extend this period, full details can be found in our guidance section.

Q: What should we do if we do not hold the information?

If you do not hold the information requested you must confirm this in writing within 20 working days. This is not technically classified as a ‘refusal notice’, but simply follows your duty to confirm or deny whether you hold it. When appropriate it is also useful to give an explanation of why you do not hold the information, particularly in cases where the information has been deleted in line with a disposal schedule. The authority also has a duty to provide advice and assistance, so far as it would be reasonable to expect it to do so in accordance with the Code of Practice. This could include advising an applicant if information is available elsewhere or assisting them in focusing their request, perhaps by advising of the types of information available within the requested category.

Q: In what circumstances may we refuse a request for information?

You may refuse a request for information where:

  • The request is vexatious or repeated.
  • The cost of complying with the request exceeds the ‘appropriate limit’ (see FAQ on cost/fee limits).
  • The information requested falls under one of the exemptions listed in Part II of the Freedom of Information Act.

For full details of what is exempt, read our page what are the reasons to refuse a request.

Q: What is a ‘vexatious request’?

The key question is whether the request (taking into account its context and history) is likely to cause distress, disruption or irritation without any proper or justified cause. It is the request itself, not the identity of the requester or the consequences of disclosure, that is relevant.
A vexatious request will usually meet several of the following criteria:
It can fairly be seen as obsessive.

  • It has the effect of harassing the public authority or causing distress to staff.
  • It would impose a significant burden in terms of expense and distraction.
  • It is designed to cause disruption or annoyance.
  • It does not have any serious purpose or value.

This is not intended to be a formulaic test, and not all of these factors need be present. It will often be obvious when a request is vexatious.
You may not refuse a request for information which should be available through your publication scheme (see FAQ on publication schemes) on the grounds that it is vexatious.
Full details can be found in the specific guidance on vexatious and repeated requests and vexatious requests – a short guide.

Q: What are the rules in the Freedom of Information Act regarding repeated requests?

Where you have previously complied with a request for information which was made by any person, you are not obliged to comply with a subsequent identical or substantially similar request from that person unless a reasonable interval has elapsed between compliance with the previous request and the making of the current request.

Although there is no definition in the Freedom of Information Act of a ‘reasonable interval’, we have published guidance that will help you determine whether a request may be ‘repeated’ and provides guidance for public authorities on how to deal with them.

Q: Does the Freedom of Information Act apply to personal data?

The Freedom of Information Act gives applicants the right to request information held by public authorities. It does not provide a right of access to personal information about you. If someone is requesting their personal data this should be handled as a Subject Access Request under the Data Protection Act. Specific guidance has been produced on personal information.

Q: What are the cost limits for a Freedom of Information Act request?

The appropriate cost limit for a request is £600 for central government and Parliament and £450 for other public authorities. This means when you receive a request you need to estimate how much it will cost to deal with it, and if it will be within this limit.

When estimating the cost of compliance, you can take into consideration the cost of:

  • Determining whether it holds the information requested
  • Locating the information
  • Retrieving such information or documents
  • The cost of staff time associated with these activities is currently calculated at £25 per hour.

You can not take the time spent considering whether or not information is exempt from release into account when estimating the cost of compliance.

Q: What happens when the cost limit is not exceeded?

Where the limit is not exceeded, the only charges that can be passed to the applicant are those associated with providing the information, for example photocopying and postage. These are collectively known as disbursements.

Q: What happens when the cost limit is exceeded?

Where you estimate that the limit will be exceeded you are not obliged to comply with the request and should inform the applicant by way of a Refusal Notice.

As part of the duty to provide advice and assistance to applicants, you should consider explaining what, if any, information could be provided within the cost limit and advise the applicant that they should consider narrowing down their request.

You may be willing to provide the information even where the cost exceeds the limit if the applicant is willing to pay the full costs in dealing with the request. You can also decide to provide the information free of charge, despite the application of the appropriate limit if you wish.

Q: What should we do if we are proceeding with a request that exceeds the appropriate costs limit?

Where the estimated costs exceed the appropriate limit, the authority is not obliged to communicate the information to the applicant. Although there is no obligation to comply with a request when the appropriate limit is exceeded, there is provision in the Act and the Fees Regulations for an authority to communicate the information and charge a fee in such cases.

In the event that a public authority decides to proceed with such a request, as a matter of good practice we recommend that where the authority wishes to charge a fee for providing the information, they issue a fees notice to the requester in order to avoid any confusion.

For further details of the fees that can be charged see our Using the Fees Regulations guidance.

Q: How can we request payment?

If you need to request a fee for ‘disbursements’, such as photocopying and postage, you need to issue a Fees Notice within 20 working days of receipt of the request. When you issue the Fees Notice the 20 working day limit for responding stops, and will start again when you receive payment. If you do not receive the fee within three months you are not obliged to comply with the request.

For further details see our Charging a Fee and Using the Fees Regulations guidance. Further guidance on fees is also available on the Ministry of Justice website.

Q: What is a publication scheme?

The model scheme classifies information at a high level and broadly states the way authorities can provide information and what they can charge for. All public sector organisations should have adopted our new model scheme on the 1 January 2009.

The model specifies seven classes of information. To maximise the routine release of information the categories have been set at a high level. Most information that a public authority holds falls into the seven classes. However, this does not mean the authority must routinely release all the information covered by the broad definitions in the definition document for that sector.
The scheme sets out the circumstances under which an authority would not be required to make information routinely available. These are when:

  • the information is not held;
  • the information is exempt from disclosure, for instance personal data or commercial interest; or
  • the authority cannot easily access the information.

Routinely published information should be available as part of an authority’s normal business. So the information should be easy to access through a website or be easily and quickly sent out by a member of the authority’s staff. For more information, consult the model publication schemes section of our website.

Q: What is a model publication scheme?

The model scheme classifies information at a high level and broadly states the way authorities can provide information and what they can charge for. All public sector organisations should have adopted our new model scheme on the 1 January 2009.

The model specifies seven classes of information. To maximise the routine release of information the categories have been set at a high level. Most information that a public authority holds falls into the seven classes. However, this does not mean the authority must routinely release all the information covered by the broad definitions in the definition document for that sector.
The scheme sets out the circumstances under which an authority would not be required to make information routinely available. These are when:

  • the information is not held;
  • the information is exempt from disclosure, for instance personal data or commercial interest; or
  • the authority cannot easily access the information.

Routinely published information should be available as part of an authority’s normal business. So the information should be easy to access through a website or be easily and quickly sent out by a member of the authority’s staff. For more information, consult the model publication schemes section of our website.

Q: Who has to have a publication scheme?

All public authorities covered by the Freedom of Information Act.

Q: What is a 'class of information'?

A 'class of information' is a group of information records having one or more common characteristics. The model scheme specifies classes of information at a high level, most information a public authority holds will fall into these classes.

Q: What should we do to operate our publication scheme?

You must publicise the fact that you have adopted an approved publication scheme.

You must make sure that information is available in accordance with the provisions of the scheme.

To achieve this, the organisation must compile and publicise a guide to the specific information it makes available under the scheme.

Staff, particularly front line staff, needs to be aware of the commitment the organisation has made to provide information and how it is obtained. As in most circumstances requests for information covered by a publication scheme may not be in writing, you also need to make sure that all staff know what to do when asked for information the organisation routinely makes available by telephone or at a public counter.

Q: What do we need to do to maintain a publication scheme?

The actual information contained within the organisations guide should be reviewed and maintained by the authors of the material on a regular basis. Staff should be aware of the documents and other recorded information covered by it.

Q: Can an authority make modifications to the model?

An authority can add to the model without gaining approval from the information Commissioners Office. Any deletions made to the model scheme require the approval of the Information Commissioners Office. Deletions to the scheme would only be considered for approval in exceptional circumstances.

Q: Do authorities merging or undergoing boundary changes during 2009 need to comply?

We have received numerous enquiries from authorities that are merging/undergoing boundary changes on 1 April 2009 regarding whether they need to adopt the new scheme. We would expect the existing bodies to comply with legal requirements by adopting and operating in accordance with the approved model publication scheme from 1 January 2009.

The new model scheme covers all public authorities therefore any new bodies formed from mergers post January 2009 will adopt the same scheme they had previously adopted as separate bodies. However, the new authority will need to reconcile the directories of information in order to operate the scheme.

Q: Should we show the publication scheme on the website?

It is good practice to publicise your approved scheme on the website to show that you have adopted a scheme. We recommend that it is put in the ‘FOI’ or ‘access to information’ section of the site.

Q: Should people be required to access the information through the scheme?

No. People should be able to access information that the authority routinely produces without needing to know about a publication scheme. People should be able to access information through the authority’s website or by contacting the authority by phone, email, letter or in person.

Q: What if we are asked to provide a copy of the scheme?

When adopting the scheme, the authority should publish it on its website if it has one. It should also be willing to provide the scheme in hard copy if required.

It would also be useful to provide the sectoral definition documents, which give examples of the specific information provided and, if appropriate, the authority’s guide to information.

Q: What if we are asked to provide all the information in the guide?

Because authorities probably have to routinely publish large amounts of information, giving someone all the information in the guide within five working days may be unrealistic.

Technically, an individual is entitled to all the information an authority makes routinely available, but it is reasonable for the authority to provide it over an appropriate period of time, proportionate to the amount of information.

The authority should contact the individual to explain the difficulty and to give a timetable for release. The authority should ask the person what information they are particularly interested in and whether they would prefer to receive it in any particular order.

 

Q: Do we need to provide an electronic link to the information through the seven classes?

No. An authority does not have to use the class headings. The main point is that the authority and the public know what information the authority routinely makes available, how it will be made available and any charges. The authority can decide how it publicises and provides the information.

Some authorities have suggested using the seven class headings as a way of accessing the information. Others intend to map the information to categories already used on the organisation’s website. For instance, information in the class ‘Who we are and what we do’ would be shown in the ‘About us’ section of the website.

The priority is to ensure the guide to information is prominent and user friendly, rather than forcing the public to access it through a publication scheme.

Q: Can we link the classes to a classification system we already use?

Yes. The authority can decide how it groups and tracks the information.

Q: What if we want to omit some of the information shown in the definition documents?

The definition documents are a starting point for the authority to compile its own guide to information. The information in the definition documents has been decided by working with sectoral contacts and representative bodies and by considering the information currently provided.

We regard the information as relevant, in the public interest and linked to good business practice and high-quality customer service. However, in certain circumstances, some information can legitimately be omitted, for example if it there is not a business need for it, or if it is exempt under law.