Page last updated at 17:46 GMT, Monday, 20 March 2006

Q and A

Filing cabinet
Open up: FOI is in force

The Freedom of Information Act became law in 2005, making government more open and accessible.

Nicola Beckford answers some key questions about its significance.

What is the Freedom of Information Act?

The Freedom of Information Act 2000 came into force on 1 January 2005. The Act says that any person can request information from a public body and have that information given to them, subject to certain exemptions.

This legislation covers public bodies in England, Wales and Northern Ireland. There is a similar but not identical law covering Scottish public authorities - the Freedom of Information (Scotland) Act 2002.

So what does this mean in practice?

Over 100,000 public bodies are subject to freedom of information (FOI). This includes central government departments and agencies, local councils, the NHS including health authorities and hospital trusts, the Police, and state schools, colleges and universities.

Many quangoes, from the Health and Safety Executive to the Electoral Commission, are also covered. Along the way there are myriad organizations many of us have probably never heard of - from the British Potato Council to the Commissioners of Northern Lighthouses.

What information can you request?

You can make a request to see any information held by public authorities.

Lord Falconer
Freedom of Information is not simply about providing a tool to prise information out of public bodies ... the real test is whether there is a change in attitude across the public sector
Constitutional Affairs Secretary Lord Falconer

The Act doesn't only apply to paper files, but also for example to information stored on video, tape, and electronically.

Some authorities publish 'disclosure logs' on their websites of information already disclosed in response to FOI requests. So it can be worth checking if your question has already been asked and answered before submitting a request.

So how easy is it to get the information?

Applying for information is fairly straightforward - whether you actually get the information will depend on the individual circumstances of the case.

Public authorities have to accept any written request - including an email - as a valid request for information

Although authorities must reply "promptly", they have up to 20 working days to respond to requests. This period can be extended if the information falls under an exemption which needs consideration under the public interest test.

What does it mean for news organisations?

Freedom of information can be a useful tool for generating news stories, by revealing newsworthy material which would otherwise have stayed secret. Factual background material relating to policy decisions, such as statistics or analysis, can also be used to provide depth to stories and shed light on the decision-making process.

What are the exemptions?

A public authority has to give you the information unless it is covered by either a qualified or absolute exemption.

Qualified exemptions are subject to the 'public interest test'. The public body, or the Information Commissioner at appeal stage, has to judge whether the public interest in keeping something secret outweighs that of disclosing it.

Examples of qualified exemptions include information that would prejudice the formulation of government policy, the effective conduct of public affairs, national security or international relations.

You will get an absolute refusal to release information if you ask for something covered by an absolute exemption, for example material on the intelligence services, certain court records, and information that cannot be disclosed because of other laws.

If the authority refuses to reveal the information is that the end of the road?

No. A refusal letter should explain how to ask the authority for an internal review of their decision. If you're still not satisfied you can appeal to the Information Commissioner.

How has it worked in practical terms?

The Act has seen the release of a great deal of information which would not otherwise have been made public.

The media have been active users of the legislation, as have campaign groups and some businesses. But according to the Information Commissioner, it is the general public who have used it most of all.

However, a major problem is the backlog of appeal cases in the Information Commissioner's office. Some of these outstanding cases may set important precedents which will demonstrate how far FOI will actually go in practice.

What about environmental information?

Environmental information is covered by a separate measure, the Environmental Information Regulations. On the whole these are stronger and provide greater rights to information than FOI legislation.


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