This informal CPD article, ‘Freedom of Information Requests – the basics’ was provided by Essex County Council, the local authority for Essex, who have a vision for Essex to be a county where individuals, families and communities can thrive and prosper.
Freedom of Information Requests – the basics
If you are a public authority you will be subject to the Freedom of Information Act. To confirm if you are, you can check Schedule 1 of the Act1 which sets out who it applies to. The Act provides a right of access to recorded information held by a public authority unless an exemption applies to its disclosure.
Because disclosures under the Act are considered to be disclosures to the world at large it is not always appropriate, or in the public interest, to make a disclosure. Exemptions exist within the Act to protect that information. These fall into three categories:
Absolute exemptions, which include:
- Information available elsewhere
- Royal Family Correspondence
- Court Records
- Personal information of the requester
- Information provided in confidence
- Prohibition on disclosure
- Cost of compliance exceeds the cost limit
- Repeated or Vexatious requests
Exemptions qualified by a Public Interest Test, which include:
- Intended for future publication
- Research information intended for future publication
- Investigations & Proceedings
- Royal Family Correspondence and Honours
- Environmental Information
- Personal Data
- Legal Professional Privilege
Exemptions qualified by a Public Interest Test and a Prejudice Test, which include:
- Safeguarding National Security
- Law Enforcement
- Audit Functions
- Conduct of Public Affairs
- Health & Safety
- Damage to Commercial Interests.
Public authorities receiving a request in writing which says what information is requested, provides the real name of the requester, and has a valid response address must be acknowledged and responded to within twenty working days.
- You are required to confirm whether or not you hold the requested information, and if you do to provide a copy of it unless an exemption applies. If you apply an exemption to withhold the requested information you must explain which exemption has been applied and include any required public interest or prejudice test.
- The public interest test weighs the public interest in disclosure against the public interest in maintaining the exemption.
- For the purposes of the Act, ‘prejudice’ means causing harm in some way. The prejudice test requires you to explain in your response what harm will, or is likely to, occur if you disclose the requested information.
- You must issue a formal refusal notice as part of your response if you are withholding information.
- If is it unclear what a requester wants it is the public authorities responsibility to give advice and guidance to help them make their request.
The Information Commissioners Office (ICO) regulate information legislation including FOI. You should read the ICO guidance2 on how exemptions apply to ensure they are engaged and correctly applied. In addition, they provide an FOI Toolkit3 which organisations can use to benchmark their compliance and create improvement plans.
We hope you found this article helpful. For more information from Essex County Council please visit their CPD Member Directory page. Alternatively, you can go to the CPD Industry Hubs for more articles, courses and events relevant to your Continuing Professional Development requirements.