Your Rights Under the Freedom of Information Act 2000
The Freedom of Information Act 2000 applies to all public authorities such as local and central government, schools, universities and colleges, the police, the NHS and many other public and advisory bodies and committees. Any information which is out there in the public domain can be requested regardless of your age, nationality or where you currently live.
How Do I Ask for the Information?You have to request information from a public authority in writing, be that by letter or in email form. You need to include your name, address and email details (where applicable) and you should also try to be as specific as possible in terms of what information you’re seeking. An example might be where you want to find out more about a planning application from a housing development company that has been granted which might affect your local community.
In that sort of situation, you need to contact your local authority’s planning department and, rather than simply ask them to send you all the information they have about company X, you will need to ask them for a copy of the minutes of the particular meeting where the decision to grant planning permission to company X was made.
What are Their Obligations to Me?If you request information from a public authority or similar body, they must comply with this request and provide you with the relevant information you’re seeking within 20 working days, which will usually equate to about a month. If the issue is complex and they need more time to gather all the information you’ve asked for, they must still contact you within 20 working days to tell you this, the reasons why they need the additional time, and give you a date by which you can expect to receive the information.
Are there any Costs Involved?Many requests for information are supplied for free or, in some cases, you may need to pay a small administrative fee for the cost of photocopied documents and postage. If the issue is more complex and might require expenditure of over several hundred pounds on either central government or the public authority’s part, they do reserve the right to refuse your request or to ask you to modify it in terms of narrowing it down so that it is less costly for them to administer.
Can I Ask Them for any Kind of Information?You can certainly ask but you may not be granted access to certain information. For example, where your request might compromise national security or a person’s health and safety, you could be refused. In such instances, however, if your request is turned down, the public authority must tell you in writing the reasons why.
Likewise, even if they are willing to supply you with most, but not all, of the information you have requested, they must advise you why they have withheld certain aspects of the information from you.
What if I Ask Them for Information about Me?If you ask government or a public authority to supply you with information they hold about you personally, this is covered by the Data Protection Act and not the Freedom of Information Act. You do not have exactly the same rights under the Data Protection Act as you do under the Freedom of Information Act, although you still have the right to be given information held about you by such bodies. However, different charges apply and public authorities are permitted to take longer to answer your request.
What If They Refuse My Request?If your request is refused, you do have the right of appeal. Usually, you would contact the public authority in question first and ask them to reconsider your request if you feel their refusal to provide you with the information is unreasonable. However, if the relevant body still refuses to supply you with the information, you can appeal to the independent Information Commissioner who will investigate matters further and, ultimately, he would be the person who would make the final decision.
If he thinks that the authority was wrong in refusing you access to the information you’ve requested, he can force the public authority to supply it to you. However, he can also come down on the side of the public authority and back their original decision, although he would need to also give you reasons why.