What are Freedom of information (FOI) requests?
Section 1 of the Freedom of Information Act 2000 gives individuals the right to request information held by English, Welsh and Northern Irish “public authorities”. These are often referred to as Freedom of Information (FOI) requests.
The Act is overseen and enforced by the Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO).
The Cabinet Office is responsible for freedom of information policy in England, Wales and Northern Ireland.
The 2000 Act covers UK-wide public authorities based in Scotland. However, Scotland has its own freedom of information legislation which applies to Scotland only public bodies – the Freedom of Information (Scotland) Act 2002. Further information is available from the Scottish Information Commissioner’s website – the body responsible for FOI in Scotland.
Which public authorities can be subject to an FOI request?
Broadly speaking, public authorities are public bodies that exercise public functions, such as central and local government departments. The ICO guide, Public authorities under the Freedom of Information Act (PDF 260 KB), sets out the bodies mentioned in the Act:
- Government departments, legislative bodies, and the armed forces
- Local government
- National Health Service
- Maintained schools and further and higher education institutions
- Other public bodies (this includes a list of individually named non-departmental public bodies)
What about other organisations delivering public services?
MPs have called for the provisions of the Act to be extended to cover bodies such as healthcare providers who contract services.
In the ICO publication, Outsourcing Oversight? The case for reforming access to information law (PDF 2.05 MB), Elizabeth Denham, the Information Commissioner, describes the current law as “no longer fit for purpose”. The report sets out how public services are delivered in many ways by many organisations but that those organisations are not subject to the access to information laws. The Commissioner cites the Grenfell Tower tragedy as one example of a need for increased transparency and accountability in contractors delivering public services.
How to make an FOI request
Freedom of Information requests must be made in writing, including email. Anyone has the right to ask for information – people living abroad, non-UK citizens, journalists, political parties, lobby groups and commercial organisations. It is not necessary to use a special form, or even to make reference to the 2000 Act – any written request for information held by a public body could be categorised as an FOI request.
The Commons Library briefing paper, Freedom of information requests, provides further brief information on making a request and an overview of individuals’ rights to request information held by English, Welsh and Northern Irish “public authorities”.
A constituent wanting to make an FOI request should follow the guidance provided by the ICO’s office. They should not go via their MP.
Are there any exemptions?
An FOI request must be complied with by a public authority unless one or more of the exemptions set out in the Act are relevant. Most exemptions are subject to a “public interest” test. There are also several absolute exemptions.
- Absolute exemptions include information supplied by security bodies; court records; personal information and information provided in confidence.
- Exemptions subject to the public interest test include: information intended for future publication; national security; international relations and law enforcement.
“Public interest” is not defined in the Act, but in the ICO guidance, The public interest test (PDF 324 KB) it states:
The public interest can cover a wide range of values and principles relating to the public good, or what is in the best interests of society. Thus, for example, there is a public interest in transparency and accountability, to promote public understanding and to safeguard democratic processes.
For more detail, see chapter 2.1 of the Commons Library briefing paper, Freedom of information requests.
What to do if an FOI outcome is not satisfactory
Constituents can complain when the following things happen:
- If the public authority has not released everything – i.e. only partial information has been released
- If they take too long to respond – under the 2000 Act, an authority must comply with a request within 20 days of receipt of the application. Exemptions to this include where a request needs to be clarified or a charge notice is issued. For more detail see the heading What happens after I make my request on the ICO’s Guide to accessing information from a public body .
Constituents can contact the ICO to make a complaint via the ICO website or the helpline: 0303 123 1113
What about Members’ staff?
Members of Parliament are not covered by the 2000 Act as they are not “public authorities” for the purposes of the Act. If you still require information – such as correspondence from MPs held by a public authority – please contact the Information Rights and Information Security team (IRIS), who provide advice to Members and their staff on the application of freedom of information law.
Advice on individual cases can be obtained from the ICO helpline: 0303 123 1113
- Freedom of information requests, Commons Library research briefing
- How to access Information from a public body, Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO)
- Cabinet Office: Code of Practice for public bodies (PDF 272 KB)
- A for public guide authorities under the act (PDF 260 KB), Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO)
- Outsourcing oversight? The case for reforming access to information law (PDF 2.05 MB), Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO)