Freedom of Information in the United Kingdom FAQs
- What is the Freedom of Information Act?
- What is a Freedom of Information (FOI) request?
- Who can make an FOI request?
- Who can you request information from?
- What information is covered by the FOI Act and EIRs?
- How do I apply for information under the Act?
- Who do I send the request to?
- What should my application say?
- Can I see an example letter?
- Will I have to pay for the information?
- How long does the authority have to reply?
- Can information be withheld?
- What should I do if I am unhappy with the authority’s decision?
1. What is the Freedom of Information Act?
The Freedom of Information Act gives you a wide-ranging right to see all kinds of information held by the government and public authorities.
You can use the Act to find out about a problem affecting your community and to check whether an authority is doing enough to deal with it; to see how effective a policy has been; to find out about the authority’s spending; to check whether an authority is doing what it says it is and to learn more about the real reasons for decisions.
Authorities will only be able to withhold information if an exemption in the Act allows them to. Even exempt information may have to be disclosed in the public interest. If you think information has been improperly withheld you can complain to the independent Information Commissioner, who can order disclosure.
There are actually two new Freedom of Information Acts, one for the whole of the UK except Scotland and another for Scotland:
- The Freedom of Information Act 2000 applies to UK government departments – including those operating in Scotland – and public authorities in England, Wales and Northern Ireland. It also applies to the House of Commons, the House of Lords and to the Welsh and Northern Ireland assemblies.
- The Freedom of Information (Scotland) Act 2002 provides similar, though slightly better, rights to information held by the Scottish Executive, Scottish public authorities and the Scottish Parliament.
The UK Act is enforced by the UK Information Commissioner and the Scottish Act by the Scottish Information Commissioner.
2. What is a Freedom of Information (FOI) request?
Freedom of information (FOI) gives you the right to ask any public sector organisation for information they hold. Anyone can request information. You can also ask for information about yourself under data protection legislation.
3. Who can make an FOI request?
From the Information Commissioner’s Office: “Anyone can make a freedom of information request – they do not have to be UK citizens, or resident in the UK. Freedom of information requests can also be made by organisations, for example a newspaper, a campaign group, or a company. Employees of a public authority can make requests to their own employer, although good internal communications and staff relations will normally avoid the need for this.
Requesters should direct their requests for information to the public authority they think will hold the information. The public authority that receives the request is responsible for responding.”
4. Who can you request information from?
The UK Freedom of Information Act applies to public authorities at all levels: central government departments and agencies; local authorities; NHS bodies including individual GPs, dentists, opticians and pharmacists; schools, colleges and universities; the police, the armed forces, quangos, regulators, advisory bodies, publicly owned companies and the BBC and Channel 4 (though not in relation to journalistic materials). The Houses of Parliament, the Welsh Assembly and, if reconvened, the Northern Ireland Assembly are all also covered. UK authorities which operate in Scotland are covered by the UK Act. For the full list of bodies covered see: http://www.foi.gov.uk/coverage.htm
The Scottish Freedom of Information Act applies to the Scottish Executive and its agencies, the Scottish Parliament, local authorities, NHS bodies, police forces, schools, colleges and universities and other Scottish authorities. For a full list see: http://www.itspublicknowledge.info/foiact8.htm
Courts and tribunals are not covered by either Act nor are the security and intelligence services.
Individual private bodies with public functions, or private contractors providing services on behalf of a public authority, can be brought under the UK or Scottish FOI Act. A Parliamentary order will have to be made to do this. If it is, you will be able to apply for information about those functions or services directly to the private body. No private bodies have been included at the time of writing.
The Environmental Information Regulations (EIRs) apply to authorities which are covered by the FOI Acts and to any other public authorities including courts and tribunals and the security and intelligence services. Private contractors providing environmental services, consultancy or research for public authorities are also covered.
5. What information is covered by the FOI Act and EIRs?
The FOI Act and EIRs apply to any recorded information held by or on behalf of an authority. This includes paper records, emails, information stored on computer, audio or video cassettes, microfiche, maps, photographs, handwritten notes or any other form of recorded information. Unrecorded information which is known to officials but not recorded is not covered.
The age of the information is irrelevant. The new rights apply to information recorded at any time, including information obtained before the FOI Act or EIRs came into force.
Anyone who destroys a record after you have asked for it, in order to prevent its disclosure, would commit a criminal offence. But it is not an offence to destroy records which have not been requested.
6. How do I apply for information under the Act?
A request for information under the FOI Act should be in writing: a letter, email or fax will be valid. A request under the Scottish FOI Act can also be made in some other permanent form, such as an audio or video tape. A request to a Scottish authority left on voicemail may also be valid.
A request under the EIRs can be made in any form. An oral request made in person or by telephone or left on voicemail will also be valid. If you make an oral request in this way, it may be a good idea to confirm it in writing, to avoid possible misunderstandings.
7. Who do I send the request to?
As long as the request is made to the authority it will be valid.
The safest thing may be to send it to the authority’s FOI officer, if only to ensure it is dealt with by someone who knows about the legislation. The larger authorities will have one. For contact details see the authority’s publication scheme or phone the authority.
You could also send it to the official who handles the issue you’re asking about, if you know who that is.
You could also send it to the minister, chief executive or, if you’re a journalist, the press officer.
8. What should my application say?
(a) Describe the information you want. The more specific you can be the better, as the authority may be entitled to refuse a request which is too sweeping.
If you know which documents you want, describe them. For example, you might want minutes of particular meetings, a specific report or a set of figures. Alternatively, you may want correspondence or emails between the authority and someone else about a particular issue over a given period.
You could also ask for information which the authority holds about a particular topic. If so, try and ensure that the topic is relatively narrowly defined. Don’t ask for “everything you hold about” a subject, unless that is likely to involve a relatively small amount of material.
You can also ask questions or ask for a set of data to be extracted from a database.
If you don’t know enough about the issue to make a specific request, do some research first. Check to see what the authority publishes about the issue: this may help identify other unpublished information which you may want to ask for. You could also ask the authority’s FOI officer to help you clarify what kind of information about the issue the authority is likely to hold.
(b) Include your name and address. This is a legal requirement under the FOI Act though not under the EIRs. Your address can be an email address though a postal address will obviously be necessary if you want material posted to you. Include a phone number if possible. This will speed things up in case the authority wants to ask you about your request.
(c) Say that you’re applying under the FOI Act and/or the EIRs. Your request will be valid regardless of whether you mention the legislation, but doing so will remind officials to deal with it correctly. If you think the information you want is environmental information point this out since the EIRs give you a stronger right of access than the FOI Act. All you need to say is “This is an request under the Freedom of Information Act” or “This is an request under the Environmental Information Regulations”. If your request is partly for environmental and partly for other information refer to both sets of laws. However, you won’t weaken your rights if you happen to refer to the wrong law.
(d) You don’t have to say why you want the information. You are entitled to information, regardless of what you want to do with it.
(e) Specify the form in which you would like access to be given. You can say whether you would prefer to have access by, for example, being sent photocopies or printouts, having material emailed to you or supplied on disk, being given the information in summary form, inspecting the records in person or (if its extremely brief) being given to you by telephone. You are entitled to be given access in more than one form, for example, by inspecting the records first and then having copies.
The authority is required to comply with your preference so long as that is reasonably practicable. If it is not, for example, because it would involve too much work, it is entitled to give you the information in some other reasonable form.
The authority can ask you to pay the costs of putting information into your preferred form, if it is not already held in that way. It should tell you what these costs are first and ask if you are prepared to pay.
(f) Tell the authority you look forward to hearing from it promptly and in any case within 20 working days. These are the legal time limits (see below).
A model letter you can use in applying for information is shown below.
All this means that making an FOI or EIR request is extremely simple. In fact, you don’t even need to know about the legislation to benefit from it. If you have asked a public authority for information since January 1 2005 you will probably have made a valid request under the legislation, so long as your request was in writing. If your request was for environmental information, it will have been valid even if not made in writing. The authority’s response to you should have complied with the Act’s requirements, even though you didn’t know about them at the time.
9. Can I see an example letter?
Freedom of Information Officer
Name and address of public authority Date
Dear FOI Officer,
This is a request under the Freedom of Information Act / Environmental Information Regulations. (Delete whichever does not apply. If your request is for non-environmental information, mention just the FOI Act. If it is for environmental information, mention just the EIRs. If it involves both kinds of information, mention both laws.)
Could you please supply me with (describe the information you want as specifically as possible). Please include copies of material which you hold in the form of paper and electronic records including emails (this is not strictly necessary as the authority should provide you with the information you have asked for regardless of the form in which it is held. But it may be useful to remind it to look through its electronic records and emails as well as any paper records.)
I would be grateful if you would supply this information in the form of (state your preferred format if you have one – eg by providing me with photocopies / by email / by allowing me to inspect the records etc. If you have no particular preference omit this paragraph)
If I can help to clarify this request please telephone me on (your phone number) or contact me by email at (your email address).
10. Will I have to pay for the information?
Unless your request requires the authority to do a large amount of work, you will probably be entitled to the information free of charge, apart from any copying or postage costs. However, the precise charging rules vary between the different laws.
If the authority does make a charge, for example, for photocopies, it should tell you in advance and ask you if you are prepared to pay. It will be entitled to ask for payment in advance. If it does, the countdown towards the 20 working day response period will stop until you pay. So if you are willing to pay, do so quickly.
Charges under the UK FOI Act
So long as the authority does not have to spend more than a set amount finding your information, it can only charge you for copying, printing and postage. The cost limit:
- for a government department is £600. This is equivalent to about three and a half days work, at a fixed rate of £25 an hour.
- for all other authorities is £450. This is equivalent to about two and a half days work at the same fixed rate.
Remember: this is not the charge that you will have to pay. If the cost of dealing with your request is below these limits you can only be charged the copying, printing and postage costs. But if the cost is above these limits, the authority is not required to provide the information at all.
11. How long does the authority have to reply?
The authority must supply the information you have asked for, or explain why it cannot, promptly and within 20 working days. If it can supply the information before the end of the 20 working days it must do so.
Some extensions are allowed:
- Where an authority is required to consider disclosing exempt information under the UK FOI Act’s public interest test,3 the 20 working days can be extended for a “reasonable” time. This extension should only be needed where the public interest test raises particularly complex questions. If the authority does need an extension it is required to tell you how long it expects this to be and must still disclose any non-exempt information within 20 working days. This extension does not apply under the Scottish FOI Act. Scottish authorities have to deal with all requests – including those which involve the public interest test – within 20 working days.
- A 10 working day extension is allowed for requests to the National Archives and Keeper of Records in Scotland for information that is not already publicly available.
- Schools have up to 60 working days to respond to requests received during or shortly before school holidays. Where information is held overseas or where requests can only be answered by personnel taking part in or preparing for military operations, the Information Commissioner can authorise an extension of up to 60 working days if necessary. None of these extensions apply to Scottish public authorities.
The above extensions only apply to FOI requests – not to those under the EIRs. The EIRs (both UK and Scottish) allow the normal 20 working day period to be extended to up to 40 working days where the complexity and volume of the requested information make it impracticable to comply within the normal limit. This is the only permitted extension.
12. Can information be withheld?
Under the UK and Scottish FOI Acts authorities can refuse to supply information if:
- The cost of finding and extracting the information would cost more than the set cost limit (see above).
- The authority has already provided you with the same or substantially similar information in which case you may have to wait a “reasonable” time before you can apply again.
- Your request is “vexatious” – for example, if it is made in order to disrupt the authority’s work or is part of an obsessive pattern of requests.
- The information is covered by an exemption which is not subject to the Act’s public interest test. These are known as “absolute” exemptions.
- The information is covered by an exemption to which the public interest test does apply but in this case, the public interest in withholding the information is greater than the public interest in its disclosure.
The grounds for refusing information under the EIRs are more limited. There are fewer exemptions and all but one are subject to a public interest test. The authority cannot refuse a request because the cost exceeds a set limit, nor can it refuse a repeated or vexatious request. However, it can refuse if the request is “too general” or “manifestly unreasonable”.
13. What should I do if I am unhappy with the authority’s decision?
If an authority has refused some or all of the information that you have applied for it should write to you:
- telling you which exemption it is relying on and why it considers that the exemption applies, if this is not obvious, and
- if it is an exemption to which the public interest test applies, explaining its reasons for claiming that the public interest in withholding the information is greater than the public interest in disclosure.
- informing you of your rights of appeal.
If you’re not persuaded by the authority’s reply, be prepared to challenge it. The legislation will only work if requesters are persistent and appeal against unfounded refusals.
The first stage of any appeal should be to ask the authority itself to reconsider its decision. The Information Commissioner will not normally deal with a complaint from you unless you have done this.
If a UK public authority tells you that it has not established an appeals process for dealing with FOI appeals, you will be free to complain directly to the Information Commissioner. Most UK authorities probably will have their own appeals processes, though they are not obliged to. Scottish authorities are required to have their own appeals process.
You can appeal about any aspect of the authority’s handling of your request which you think may not comply with the FOI Act or EIRs. This may be a decision that information is exempt, that disclosure is not in the public interest, that the authority has refused to confirm whether or not it holds the information, that the cost of finding information exceeds the cost limit, about a photocopying or other charge, that the authority has taken too long over your request, that it has not provided you with reasonable advice and assistance or has dealt with your request under the wrong legislation (eg if you think it should have been dealt with under the EIRs and not the FOI Act).