Press release: 31 December 2004
The Right to Know - five new
rights come into force
From tomorrow (January 1) the public have five important new rights to information
held by public authorities.
- The Freedom of Information Act 2000 comes into force, after a 4 year
delay to give authorities time to prepare. The Act applies to central
bodies and to English, Welsh and Northern Ireland public authorities.
It also applies to the House of Commons, the House of Lords and
to the Welsh and Northern
- The Freedom of Information (Scotland) Act
2002 applies to the Scottish Executive, the Scottish Parliament
and Scottish public authorities
- The Environmental Information Regulations 2004 provide a separate right
of access to environmental information held by UK public authorities.
Some private bodies, including utilities and contractors providing environmental
services on behalf of authorities, are also covered. The regulations implement
- The Environmental Information (Scotland) Regulations 2004 provide a similar
right of access to environmental information held by Scottish
public authorities and certain private bodies.
- Amendments to the Data Protection Act 1998 strengthen people’s
rights to see personal information about themselves held by
public authorities throughout
the UK, including Scotland. The Act already allows people to
see computerised personal data about themselves and medical,
school records. The amendments significantly improve the right
to see other paper
The Campaign for Freedom of Information, which has worked for
an FOI Act since it was set up in 1984, welcomed the new laws.
said “the new rights will help people ensure that
they are being treated fairly, learn whether they are exposed
hazards, check that
are doing their job and give people a better chance of influencing
decisions before they are taken. They should also lead to more
Giving the public the right to see the documents for themselves
will make it harder for authorities to conceal substandard
performance or get away with
spin or misleading accounts of what they are doing.”
The Campaign said the change to a more open approach would
take time and people shouldn’t be surprised if at first they saw little difference in some
authorities’ responses. While some authorities had been preparing to
move towards greater openness others have assumed that they will still be able
to keep any inconvenient information secret by relying on the Act’s
exemptions. The Campaign pointed out that many exemptions only
applied where disclosure
could be shown to be harmful and that most exemptions are subject
to a public interest test, which requires an authority to release
where disclosure is in the public interest. The Campaign said
people should be persistent and prepared to challenge unreasonable
to the independent Information Commissioner who enforces the
The Campaign said people who want information from a public authority
- apply in writing or by fax or email to the authority which you think
holds the information. Requests for environmental information can also
be made orally,
for example, by telephone.
- address your request to the “Freedom of Information Officer” at
the authority’s address. Phone for more specific contact details or look
them up on the authority’s web site. You can also send
your request to the official who handles the issue, if you
know who that
to the minister
or chief executive. Include your name and address and if possible
a contact phone number.
- say that you are applying under the Freedom of Information Act
and/or the Environmental Information Regulations (EIRs). If you
want personal information
about yourself, say that you are applying under the Data Protection Act. However,
will still be valid even if you don’t mention the legislation
or you cite the wrong law.
- describe the information you want as specifically as possible.
Requests that are too general or too sweeping may be refused. If
you’re not sure what
kind of information the authority holds, ask it. Authorities are required to
provide reasonable advice and assistance to requesters. You should also check
the authority’s web site, to see what information it
has published already.
- if you want to be sent photocopies, or data by email, or inspect records
in person, say so. The authority must give you access in your preferred
format, so long as that is not too difficult or costly.
- tell the authority you look forward to hearing from it “promptly” and
in any case within 20 working days, as normally required
under the FOI Act and EIRs. If you are applying for personal data
has up to 40 days.
- in most cases you won’t have to pay for information, apart from copying
and postage costs, provided your request isn’t too sweeping. Note that
(a) under the UK FOI Act, an authority can refuse a request if finding and
extracting the information will cost more than £450, equivalent to two
and a half days work at a set £25 an hour rate. For government departments
the limit is £600 or three and a half days work (b) under the Scottish
FOI Act the authority can’t refuse a request unless it would cost more
than £600 (nearly 6 days work at £15 an hour). The first £100
of any costs are waived. Afterwards you may be asked to pay 10% of the authority’s
staff costs, ie £1.50 an hour, plus copying and postage (c) under the
Environmental Information Regulations the same charges should apply, but information
cannot be refused merely because the cost exceeds a set limit (d) under the
Data Protection Act you can be asked to pay a £10 fee though the charge
can go up to £50 for medical records.
- Authorities can
withhold information under the UK FOI Act if disclosure would
prejudice defence, international relations, law enforcement,
commercial interests, the economy, collective cabinet responsibility
or inhibit frank discussions
by officials. Under the Scottish FOI Act, the test is whether
disclosure would “substantially
prejudice” these interests. Legal advice, information
obtained during investigations by the police or prosecuting
trade secrets, information
whose disclosure would be a breach of confidence and information
about the formulation of government policy is also exempt.
However, all these
are subject to a public interest test. Other exemptions apply
to court records, personal information whose disclosure would
information about the security and intelligence services
and some other matters. There are fewer exemptions under
emissions to the environment cannot be withheld on grounds
of commercial confidentiality.
- If you are unreasonably refused information or disagree with the fee,
your first step should be to ask the authority to reconsider its
decision. After that you can complain to the Information Commissioner. The Commissioner
order the authority to disclose information if it is not
disclosure is in the public interest. However, a ministerial veto
allows ministers to
overrule the Commissioner if he orders them to disclose information
on public interest grounds. Other authorities have no veto.
- A more detailed guide on using the new rights will be available
from the Campaign’s
web site this week: www.cfoi.org.uk
Campaign for Freedom of Information 020 7831 7477.