This informal CPD article Spotlight on Freedom of Information was provided by Lauri Almond, Information Governance Manager at Essex County Council, a county council that governs the non-metropolitan county of Essex in England.
Freedom of Information Act 2000
The Freedom of Information Act 2000 provides the public with a right to access recorded information held by a public body. This information may be in the form of documents, emails, letters, video, audio files, maps etc. The Freedom of Information Act does not provide access to the opinions of the public body, so if responding to a question involves the public body creating new information in order to answer a question, they do not have to provide the information.
Working as we do in the Public Sector; we often hear the frustration and concerns raised by others on responding to freedom of information requests. It is a costly and time-consuming process; however we have a legal obligation to process requests in line with the Act.
It is key to remember that whilst requests may be frustrating to deal with and take away focus from core services, as a public body the public are paying for those services and therefore have a right to satisfy themselves that services are being run effectively.
I think the greater frustration arises from the Freedom of Information Act being used by commercial companies seeking sales opportunities, or journalists seeking stories. Unfortunately the Act does not treat them differently, so frustrating though it is, we must comply with their requests unless an exemption applies.
The Freedom of Information Act contains a range of exemptions
The Freedom of Information Act contains a range of exemptions that are there to protect particular interests, for example national security, law enforcement or public safety. Exemptions can also protect confidentiality and the personal data of individuals. Finally exemptions can also limit the burden on public bodies, for example when complying with the request would be too costly, or where requests are vexatious or repeated.
Some exemptions are absolute, meaning you do not have to justify their application. Others are subject to a Public Interest Test (PIT) which requires you to balance the public interest in disclosure against your concerns about disclosure. And some exemptions, in addition to the PIT, carry a Prejudice Test. This requires you to demonstrate what harm is likely to be caused by disclosure.
If you have responded to a request and the requester is unhappy with your response, they can ask for an internal review. It is important at this stage to review how the request has been handled and whether you have disclosed the information requested. Where you haven’t, have you applied the exemption correctly if you held the data? Did you respond within the legal timeframe? It is the public body’s opportunity to resolve any issues informally.
The Information Commissioners Office
If the requester is unhappy with your response to their request for an internal review they are able to make a complaint to the Information Commissioners Office, who regulate this legislation. To avoid regulatory censure, it is important that those who process these statutory requests for information are appropriately trained to help them efficiently and lawfully carry out this role.
If you want to refresh your knowledge or seek to gain it, we offer virtual presented training and a video on managing statutory requests. We hope this article was helpful. For more information from Essex County Council, please visit their CPD Member Directory page. Alternatively please visit the CPD Industry Hubs for more CPD articles, courses and events relevant to your Continuing Professional Development requirements.