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The Freedom of Information Act 2000 provides public access to information held by public authorities.

It does this in two ways:

  1. Public authorities are obliged to publish certain information about their activities; and
  2. Members of the public are entitled to request information from public authorities.

The Act covers any recorded information that is held by a public authority in England, Wales and Northern Ireland, and by UK-wide public authorities based in Scotland.

Information held by Scottish public authorities is covered by Scotland’s own Freedom of Information (Scotland) Act 2002.

Public authorities include government departments, local authorities, the NHS, state schools and police forces. However, the Act does not necessarily cover every organisation that receives public money. For example, it does not cover some charities that receive grants and certain private sector organisations that perform public functions.

Recorded information includes printed documents, computer files, letters, emails, photographs, and sound or video recordings.

The Act does not give people access to their own personal data, such as their health records or credit reference file. If a member of the public wants to see the information that a public authority holds about them, they should make a subject access request under the Data Protection Act 1998.

The Freedom of Information aims to show openness between the public authorities and members of the public.

Why would they want to do this?

Well, Public authorities spend money collected from taxpayers and make decisions that can significantly affect many people’s lives.
Access to information helps the public make public authorities accountable for their actions and allows public debate to be better informed and more productive.

Access to official information can also improve public confidence and public sector bodies are seen as being open.

In a 2011 survey carried out on behalf of the Information Commissioner’s Office showed that 81% of public bodies questioned agreed that the Act had increased the public’s trust in their organisation.

The main principle behind freedom of information legislation is that people have a right to know about the activities of public authorities unless there is a good reason for them not to.

This means that everybody has a right to access official information and can make a freedom of information request and so it not limited solely to UK citizens. The request should be sent to the public authority that the person believes to hold the information. Basically, the information should be kept private only when there is a good reason and it is permitted by the Act;

A member of the public does not need to give a public authority a reason for wanting the information. On the contrary, these organisations must justify refusing them information;

Generally, all requests for information must be treated equally, the act does not prevent public authorities from voluntarily giving information to certain people outside the provisions of the Act.

Certain bodies are only covered by the act for some of the information they hold, for example:

  • GPs, dentists and other health practitioners only have to provide information about their NHS work
  • The BBC, Channel 4 and the Welsh channel S4C do not have to provide information about journalistic, literary or artistic activities; and
  • Some bodies that have judicial functions do not have to provide information about these functions.
  • Individual MPs, assembly members or Councillors are not covered by the Act.

The Act covers all recorded information held by a public authority. It is not limited to official documents and it covers, for example, drafts, emails, notes, recordings of telephone conversations and CCTV recordings and it is not limited to information that is created, letters from the public are also covered by the act.

When a request for information is received it is the public authority that receives the request that is responsible for responding not only are they responding but they must also publish certain information proactively.