Laws on freedom of information give people rights to request and receive information from government and other public authorities. There are laws of this sort in place in many countries around the world. In the UK these laws are contained in the Freedom of Information Act 2000 (FOIA 2000) which came into force in 2005. In addition the Environmental Information Regulations 2004, which broadly mirror FOIA 2000, deal specifically with requests for access to environmental information.
In general, FOIA 2000 gives any person the right to (a) ask a public authority whether it holds information of a specified description, and (b) if it does, to have that information provided to them.
Following a request, a public authority must confirm or deny whether it holds information of the specified description, and (as applicable) provide the information. There are, however, a number of exemptions from these obligations. Some of these exemptions are ‘absolute’ exemptions, meaning that if they apply, the public authority neither has to confirm or deny whether it holds the information nor provide that information. For example, there are absolute exemptions for information supplied by or relating to specified organisations dealing with security matters (e.g. the National Crime Agency and the Secret Intelligence Service), and for information held by a public authority subject to an obligation of confidence owed to a third party.
Other exemptions are ‘qualified’ exemptions which may or may not excuse a public authority from its obligations to confirm or deny whether it holds the information and (if applicable) to provide the information. If the information requested falls within a qualified exemption, the public authority can only rely on that exemption if the public interest in upholding the exemption outweighs the public interest in disclosure of the information. The qualified exemptions cover, for example, information the disclosure of which would prejudice the commercial interests of a third party, national security, the defence of Britain, the economic interests of the UK or the financial interests of the UK Government or Welsh Government.
For an exhaustive list of the exemptions, please see sections 21 to 44 of the Freedom of Information Act 2000.
FOIA 2000 applies to public authorities in England and Wales. Most of the public authorities which are covered are listed in Schedule 1 of that Act and they include UK government departments, the National Assembly for Wales and the Welsh Government, as well as many other public bodies including the police, NHS bodies, educational establishments and local authorities. Additional public bodies have been made subject to FOIA 2000 as a result of the Freedom of Information (Designation as Public Authorities) Order 2011. The Act also applies to companies which are in public ownership (in the sense of being owned by a public sector body, as opposed to being a public limited company).
As well as dealing with the mechanics of making and answering requests for information and the fees which may be charged, FOIA 2000 does various other things which promote freedom of information. These include placing duties on public authorities to run a publication scheme for making information available, and to give reasonable advice and assistance to a person who is seeking information, in accordance with the terms of a Code of Practice.
FOIA 2000 also created the office of Information Commissioner. If a public authority disputes its obligation to make information available, a complaint can be made to the Information Commissioner.
Further information about this area of the law can be found on the website of the Information Commissioner’s Office.