Freedom of Information Background to Scheme The Freedom of Information Act 2000 (‘the Act’) was passed on 30 November 2000. The Act applies to public authorities and those providing services for them. This includes local councils and parish meetings without a separate parish council. The Act was brought fully into force on 1 January 2005. Local councils have two main responsibilities under the Act. Pursuant to s.19 of the Act, they have to produce a ‘publication scheme’ (a guide to the information they hold which is publicly available) deal with individual requests for information. The duty for local councils (including parish meetings without a separate parish council) to adopt a publication scheme was imposed on the 28 February 2003. Publication schemes The Act places a duty on public authorities to adopt and maintain publication scheme. Publication schemes must set out: the types of information the authority publishes the manner in which the information is published details of any charges. Once approved, it will be up to your council to decide how to publish its scheme. S.19 requires public authorities to review publication schemes periodically. In deciding what information should be included in the scheme, public authorities must consider the public interest in allowing access to information and the public interest in the publication of reasons for decisions made by the authority. A model publications scheme for use by local councils has been approved by the Information Commissioner and a copy can be found on our policies page. It is important to note that information is exempt from the Act if it is accessible to the applicant by other means (s.21 refers). Therefore, where information is already accessible because it is covered by the authority’s publication scheme, the authority will not then be required to provide the information in response to an individual request. Requesting information The right to access information held by public authorities can be exercised by anyone; both natural and legal persons (e.g. a corporate body), worldwide. Applicants are able to exercise their right of access to the information held by public authorities and they are able to ask for information recorded both before and after the Act was passed (i.e. it is fully retrospective). Applicants do not have to mention either the Freedom of Information Act or the Data Protection Act when making a request for information. However, the request must be in writing, in a legible form and capable of being used for subsequent reference. A request by email will suffice. A charge may be made for dealing with the request. The details of the charging regime are set out in the Freedom of Information and Data Protection (Appropriate Limit and Fees) Regulations 2004 (SI.3244). Providing Information/responding to requests In accordance with s.11 of the Act, where possible, information must be provided to the applicant in the manner requested. This may be in the form of a copy or summary, or the applicant may ask to inspect the record. Applicants are not entitled to information to which any of the exemptions in the Act applies – see below. However, information covered by an exemption may still be released if it is in the public interest to do so. S.10 of the Act requires public authorities to respond to requests promptly but no later than 20 working days following its receipt with all information, not covered by an exemption, being released within the 20 days. A public authority may ask for further information which it reasonably requires in order to identify and locate the information requested. Where a public authority issued a fees notice, the applicant has 3 months to pay. S.9(2) of the Act provides that if the payment is not made within this time, the public authority does not have to answer the request. Before a public authority is required to respond, a request has to satisfy certain conditions, for example: it must be in permanent form and must include sufficient information to enable the authority to identify the information requested (s.8). Authorities do not have to comply with ‘vexatious’ requests or ‘repeated requests’ if the authority has recently responded to an identical or substantially similar request from the same person (s.14). However, public authorities are under a duty to provide advice and assistance to anyone making a request (s.16). Further guidance on this duty is set out in the Secretary of State’s Code of Practice. As mentioned above a public authority may charge a fee for dealing with a request. This is calculated according to the ‘Fees Regulations’. An authority is not required to comply with a request if to do so means exceeding a cost limit set out in the Regulations. This is £450 for local authorities. This means that it will take you more than 18 hours at £25 per hour to locate, retrieve and produce the information in the requested format. Please refer to the regulations for further detail. Where an authority decides not to release the information requested, because it considers an exemption applies, it must (pursuant to s.17 of the Act) give reasons for its decision and must inform the applicant if he /she has a right to complain to the public authority about the handling of the request (e.g. through a complaints or other procedure and give details of the procedure), or state that there is no procedure, and of his/her right to complain to the Information Commissioner. In cases where an exemption applies, but an authority is then required to release the information because it is in the public interest to do so, it must disclose the information requested “within a reasonable timescale”. The Information Commissioner has developed guidance on the above procedures. The Public Interest In the majority of cases where an exemption applies, to some or all of the information requested, the public authority has to consider whether it must override the exemption because it is in the public interest to release the information. This public interest test involves considering the circumstances of each particular case and the exemption that covers the information. The balance lies in favour of disclosure, in that information can only be withheld if the public interest in withholding it is greater that the public interest in releasing it. The Exemptions Whilst the Act creates a general right of access to information held by public bodies, it then sets out 23 exemptions where that right is either disapplied or qualified. The categories of exemption are shown in the Freedom of Information Legal Topic Note. Freedom of Information and Data Protection The Freedom of Information Act 2000 extends access rights which already exist under the Data Protection Act 1998. A request by an individual for information about him/herself will be exempt under the Freedom of Information Act and will continue to be handled as a ‘subject access request’ under the Data Protection Act. In certain circumstances such a request may involve the release of associated third party information. Where an applicant specifically requests information about a third party, the request falls within the remit of the Freedom of Information Act. However, the authority must apply the Data Protection Principles when considering the disclosure of information relating to living individuals. An authority must not release third party information, if to do so would mean breaching one of the above principles. See the Data Protection Legal Topic Note for more information. Making enquiries about Freedom of Information & Data Protection. Individual enquiries in aspect of the Act can be addressed to the Information Commissioner via their information line: Information Commissioner Wycliffe House Water Lane Wilmslow Cheshire SK9 5AF Information Line: 01625 54 57 45/ 08456 30 60 60 Switchboard: 01625 54 57 45 Fax: 01625 52 45 10 Website: https://ico.org.uk/ Local Councils seeking additional advice particularly relating to exemptions under the Act or the fees charging regime outside the content of this Note or other briefings are advised to refer to the detailed and user friendly guidance produced by the Information Commissioner and available from their website and the Department of Constitutional Affairs, responsibility for which is now with the Ministry of Justice.