What is the purpose of the Freedom of Information Act?

The purpose of the Freedom of Information Act 2000 is to legislate public access to information.

The government first published proposals for freedom of information in 1997, with the aim of introducing a more open government based on mutual trust.  The bill became law in 2000 and the Freedom of Information Act 2000 now provides public access to information held by public authorities.

The Act contains a list of the bodies that are classed as public authorities, and you can view that here https://www.legislation.gov.uk/ukpga/2000/36/schedule/1 Generally speaking though, public authorities are government departments, local authorities, the NHS, state schools and police forces. Section 5 of the Act also gives the Secretary of State the power to designate further bodies as public authorities, so it is best to check the latest list by going to the https://www.legislation.gov.uk/ website.

Access to information has been seen to improve public confidence in these organisations and can help the public make these bodies accountable for their actions.

Under the Freedom of Information Act  (FOI), what should be considered?

  • The Act doesn’t give people access to their own personal data e.g., health records or credit reference files. This information can be obtained via a data protection subject access request.
  • Everybody has the right to access official information and information should be kept private only when there is a good reason, and it is permitted by the Act.
  • If someone makes a request for information, they do not need to give a reason for wanting the information.
  • All requests for information should be treated equally, no matter who the ‘requester’ is.
  • The public authority being asked to disclose information should consider the sensitivity of the information, as by giving access to information it is being released to everyone, or the public at large.

How do you make a Freedom of Information request?

Many organisations already publish certain information, and often publish previously responded to FOI requests too, so it’s always a good idea to check the website of the organisation you will be enquiring with before making a request.  You can email or phone the organisation and ask if they’ve already published the information or responded to a particular FOI request before.

If the information you seek is not already in the public domain your request must be made in writing (for environmental information you request in writing, in person or by phone). Written requests can be made by,

  • Letter
  • Email
  • Social media
  • An online form if the public authority you are requesting to has an online form
  • Fax

Your request should give,

  • Your name (not required if asking for environmental information)
  • Contact postal or email address
  • The detail of what information you want e.g., a summary or detailed information

You can ask for the information in various formats e.g.

  • Paper or electronic format
  • Audio
  • Large print

You will usually receive a response within 20 working days, but in the case of schools you may need to wait slightly longer during school holidays.

For most FOI requests there is no charge. If the FOI request is likely to require a lot of work, there may be a charge. If an authority does decide to charge, they must contact you and tell you the amount and what the charge is for (e.g. photocopies). Once they have contacted you with the charge amount the 20-working day response period is suspended until the charge is paid.

More information can be found by visiting https://www.gov.uk/make-a-freedom-of-information-request/how-to-make-an-foi-request

What type of information can be requested? 

Recorded information including printed documents, computer files, letters, emails, photographs, and sound or video recordings.  Some examples are drafts, notes, recorded telephone conversations and CCTB recordings.  It can also include the author and date of drafting a document.  Found in the properties of a document this is sometimes called meta-data.

More information can be found at the Information Commissioner’s Office https://ico.org.uk/for-organisations/guide-to-freedom-of-information/what-is-the-foi-act/

When can a Freedom of Information request be refused?

There are some cases when a FOI can be refused i.e.

  • When it would cost to much or take too much staff time to deal with the request
  • When the request is bought purely to cause trouble, irritation, or distress
  • When the request repeats a previous request from the same person

More information can be obtained here https://ico.org.uk/for-organisations/guide-to-freedom-of-information/refusing-a-request/

Top tips to help public authorities handle FOI requests  
  1. Check that you know what information is being asked for, and if necessary, clarify any ambiguity with the requester. Note that the 20 days does not start until the information being requested is properly clarified.
  2. Estimate how long the FOI will take, and if it will take too long and cost too much to provide the information act appropriately.
  3. The 20 working days response time is a legal obligation so prioritise your response.
  4. Identify any sensitive requests that may be suitable for exemption.
  5. Keep the requester informed of progress.
  6. Give more information if it helps to ensure that the information given is clear, and unlikely to be misconstrued.
  7. Know what information you hold and where you hold it, and only retain data that you need to keep in accordance with the code of practice (issued under section 45 of the Freedom of Information Act).
  8. If the FOI is likely to be of interest to the wider public, consider publishing it on your website to save time dealing with multiple requests for the same information.

Alphatec’s software solutions can help public authorities deal with Freedom of Information requests

Alphatec’s software products are versatile and can be customised to meet your specific needs.  This means you can simplify and speed up your processes.

We can provide you with several products that each work together to deliver a single cohesive platform, or you can choose an individual product and integrate it with your existing systems. Whatever way works for you, our products deliver solutions that enable you to manage.

Alphatec software provides a platform to help you better manage and find meaning from data and enable you to respond to FOI’s about these facts promptly.

The best way to find out how our software can support your FOI requests is to book a demo

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