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Freedom of Information Act 2000

The Freedom of Information Act 2000 (2000 c. 36) is the implementation of freedom of information legislation in the United Kingdom on a national level. It is an Act of Parliament that introduces a public “right to know” in relation to public bodies. The act implements a manifesto commitment of the Labour Party in the 1997 general election. The final version of the act is believed to have been diluted from that proposed while Labour was in opposition. The full provisions of the act came into force on 1 January 2005. The act itself is Crown copyright but can be found at the Web site of the Stationery Office.

The act is the responsibility of the Lord Chancellor’s Department (now renamed the Department for Constitutional Affairs). The act led to the renaming of the Data Protection Commissioner (set up to administer the Data Protection Act), who is now known as the Information Commissioner). The Office of the Information Commissioner will oversee the operation of the act when it comes into force.

A second Freedom of Information law is in existence in the UK; the Freedom of Information (Scotland) Act 2002 (2002 asp 13) was passed by the Scottish Parliament in 2002, to cover public bodies over which the Holyrood parliament, rather than Westminister, has jurisdiction. For these institutions, it fulfills the same purpose as the 2000 Act.

Implementing the act

The Act affects over 100,000 public bodies including Government Departments, Schools and Councils.

The Act came into force in phases, with the final “General right of access” to Public information under the Act coming into force on 1 January 2005.

Media reports around that time suggested that public authorities sought to shred or delete documents prior to the act coming into force. The Lord Chancellor, Lord Falconer, admitted that some public bodies were more prepared for the Act than others, and this has been borne out by the differing performance of different Government departments since.

The Act places a duty on public authorities to adopt and maintain pro-active “publication schemes” for the routine release of important information (such as annual reports and accounts) which must be approved by the Information Commissioner.

In general public authorities have 20 working days to respond to each request, though this deadline can be extended in certain cases and/or with the agreement of the requester. Under the Act, public authorities are encouraged to enter into a dialogue with the requester to better determine the information they want, and the format they want it in – in itself, a change in the way UK authorities interact with the public.

Rights under the act

The act creates a general right of access, on request, to information held by public authorities (Schedule 1 of the act sets out a long list of the authorities covered by the act). However, there are numerous exemptions. Some of these are absolute; some are qualified, which means the public authority has to decide whether the public interest in disclosing the relevant information outweighs the public interest in maintaining the exemption.

An applicant for information who considers that a request has been wrongly rejected may apply to the Information Commissioner, who has the power to order disclosure. However, such orders can be appealed to a specialist tribunal (the Information Tribunal) and in some circumstances the Government has the power to override orders of the Information Commissioner.

Any person can request information under the act; this includes legal entities such as companies. There is no special format for a request. Applicants do not need to mention the act when making a request. Applicants do not have to give a reason for their request.

Unusual features

Three features of the UK Freedom of Information Act deserve special mention, as they differ from the position in many other countries.

  1. Requests by individuals for access to their own personal information will fall outside the act, and will continue to be dealt with under the Data Protection Act 1998.
  2. Requests for information about matters concerning the environment are dealt with by the Environmental Information Regulations 2004. Those regulations, while similar to the FOIA do differ in a number of ways.
  3. There is no procedure whereby third parties can challenge a decision by a public authority to disclose information: for instance, if a commercial organisation provides information to a public authority, and the authority discloses that information in response to a FOI Act request, the commercial organisation has no right of appeal against that decision. By contrast, “reverse FOI” applications of this type are common in the U.S.

See Also

Further reading

  • The Law of Freedom of Information (MacDonald, Jones et al.: OUP 2003)
  • Information Rights (Coppel at al.: Sweet and Maxwell 2004)

External links