This Library Briefing Paper gives an overview of freedom of information requests.Jump to full report >>
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”.
Anyone has the right to ask for information - people living abroad, non-UK citizens, journalists, political parties, lobby groups and commercial organisations.
Freedom of information (FOI) requests must be in writing (including by email), need not mention the Act, but must include the name and address (or email address) of the enquirer and the information sought. A request must be complied with, unless one or more of the exemptions in the Act are relevant. Most of the exemptions are subject to a public interest test.
Public authorities are required to comply with requests within 20 working days of receipt, although there are circumstances when this time limit can be extended. There are provisions for the payment of fees but, in practice, very few public authorities levy fees. Where the costs of responding are above £600 for central government, and above £450 for other public authorities, a request may be refused.
The Cabinet Office is responsible for freedom of information policy in England, Wales and Northern Ireland. It has published a Code of Practice (July 2018) for public authorities.
The Act is enforced by the Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO). The ICO website includes information on how to make an FOI request. The ICO has published a guide (August 2017) for local authorities.
If a requester is unhappy with an FOI response, they can apply to the public authority for an internal review. If they are not satisfied, they can appeal to the ICO. The ICO can overrule a public authority’s application of an exemption, issuing a decision notice, or may issue an enforcement notice to ensure compliance with the Act. Further appeals are available to the First-tier Tribunal (Information Rights).
There is a power for a Cabinet Minister or Law Officer to issue a conclusive certificate or ministerial veto against a decision or enforcement notice. The issue of a certificate must be supported by reasonable grounds and is open to judicial review.
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. The Act is enforced by the Scottish Information Commissioner.
Commons Briefing papers SN02950
Author: John Woodhouse
Topic: Freedom of information