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Sunday, 30 October 2011

Freedom of information

Everyone has the right to request information held by public sector organisations under the Freedom of Information Act. Find out how freedom of information works, how to make an information request and what to do if your request is refused.

The Freedom of Information Act

The right to see a wide range of public information

The Freedom of Information Act gives you the right to ask any public body for all the information they have on any subject you choose. Unless there’s a good reason, the organisation must provide the information within 20 working days. You can also ask for all the personal information they hold on you.

Everyone can make a request for information – there are no restrictions on your age, nationality, or where you live.

You can ask for any information at all - but some information might be withheld to protect various interests which are allowed for by the Act. If this is case, the public authority must tell you why they have withheld information.

If you ask for information about yourself, then your request will be handled under the Data Protection Act.

Scotland has its own Freedom of Information Act, which is very similar to the England, Wales and Northern Ireland Act. If the public body you want to make a request to operates only in Scotland, see the link below.

Public sector bodies covered by the Act

The Act applies to public bodies including:

  • government departments and local assemblies
  • local authorities and councils
  • health trusts, hospitals and doctors’ surgeries
  • schools, colleges and universities
  • publicly funded museums
  • the police
  • non-departmental public bodies, committees and advisory bodies

How to make a request

Write to (or email) the public body and include:

  • your name
  • an address where you can be contacted
  • a description of the information that you want

To help the public body find the information, give as much detail as possible. For example, say 'minutes of the meeting where the decision to do X was made', rather than 'everything you have about X'.

All public authorities must manage their information in accordance with a publication scheme which describes the 'classes' or 'kinds' of information held (such as minutes or reports).

How long does it take?

You should get a response within 20 working days. If the public body needs more time, they will write and tell you why, and when you will get their response.

What does it cost?

Most requests are free. You might be asked to pay a small amount for photocopies or postage.

If the public authority thinks that it will cost them more than £450 (or £600 for central government) to find the information and prepare it for release, then they can turn down your request. They might ask you to narrow down your request by being more specific in the information you're looking for.

How you receive the information

When you make a request you can ask that the information is given to you in a particular way. For example, you can ask for paper or electronic copies of original documents or you can ask for a summary of them. You can also ask to inspect specific documents. 

However, a public authority may take into account the cost of supplying the information in this form before complying with your request.

You may also be able to receive the information:

  • in Braille
  • in audio format
  • in large type
  • translated into another language

Copyright and restrictions

If you plan to reproduce the information you receive, make sure you check the copyright status of it first.

Requests for environmental information

Everyone also has certain rights of access to environmental information under the Environmental Information Regulations.

For example, information about air or water quality, noise and waste as well as any policies, decisions or activities that could affect them.

If you request information about the environment it cannot be refused just because of what it would cost the public authority to comply.

Challenging a response to an information request

If your request for information is refused, you should first ask the public body to review their decision. Someone from the public body who was not connected with the initial decision should do this.

If you disagree with the reviewed decision, you can appeal to the Information Commissioner's Office (ICO). This is an independent body that promotes access to official information and protects personal information. If information has been wrongly withheld, the ICO can order it to be released.

If you disagree with the ICO's decision, you can appeal to the Information Rights Tribunal. This is an independent body that can look into your case and the ICO's decision. There are specific steps and deadlines you will need to follow when you appeal. If you disagree with the tribunal's decision, there are more options, but you may need professional advice.

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