The Right to Know – five new rights come into force

From tomorrow (January 1st 2005) 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 government 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 Ireland assemblies.
  • 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 an EU directive.
  • 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, social work, housing and school records. The amendments significantly improve the right to see other paper records.

The Campaign for Freedom of Information, which has worked for an FOI Act since it was set up in 1984, welcomed the new laws. Its director, Maurice Frankel, said “the new rights will help people ensure that they are being treated fairly, learn whether they are exposed to hazards, check that public authorities are doing their job and give people a better chance of influencing decisions before they are taken. They should also lead to more honesty in government. 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 the exempt information where disclosure is in the public interest. The Campaign said people should be persistent and prepared to challenge unreasonable refusals by complaining to the independent Information Commissioner who enforces the legislation.

The Campaign said people who want information from a public authority should:

  • 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 is, or 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, your request 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 about yourself the authority 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, i.e. £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 authorities, 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 exemptions are subject to a public interest test. Other exemptions apply to court records, personal information whose disclosure would breach the Data Protection Act, information about the security and intelligence services and some other matters. There are fewer exemptions under the EIRs. Significantly, information about 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 can order the authority to disclose information if it is not exempt or if 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:


Further information: 

Campaign for Freedom of Information 020 7490 3958

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