Freedom of Information
The Freedom of Information Act 2000 provides public access to information held by public authorities.
It does this in two ways:
public authorities are obliged to publish certain information about their activities; and
members of the public are entitled to request information from public authorities.
The Act covers any recorded information that is held by a public authority in England, Wales and Northern Ireland, and by UK-wide public authorities based in Scotland. Information held by Scottish public authorities is covered by Scotland’s own Freedom of Information (Scotland) Act 2002.
Public authorities include government departments, local authorities, the NHS, state schools and police forces. However, the Act does not necessarily cover every organisation that receives public money. For example, it does not cover some charities that receive grants and certain private sector organisations that perform public functions.
Recorded information includes printed documents, computer files, letters, emails, photographs, and sound or video recordings.
The Act does not give people access to their own personal data (information about themselves) such as their health records or credit reference file. If a member of the public wants to see information that a public authority holds about them, they should make a data protection subject access request.
What are the principles behind the Freedom of Information Act?
The main principle behind freedom of information legislation is that people have a right to know about the activities of public authorities, unless there is a good reason for them not to. This is sometimes described as a presumption or assumption in favour of disclosure. The Act is also sometimes described as purpose and applicant blind.
This means that:
everybody has a right to access official information. Disclosure of information should be the default – in other words, information should be kept private only when there is a good reason and it is permitted by the Act;
an applicant (requester) does not need to give you a reason for wanting the information. On the contrary, you must justify refusing them information;
you must treat all requests for information equally, except under some circumstances relating to vexatious requests and personal data (see When can we refuse a request? for details on these). The information someone can get under the Act should not be affected by who they are. You should treat all requesters equally, whether they are journalists, local residents, public authority employees, or foreign researchers; and
because you should treat all requesters equally, you should only disclose information under the Act if you would disclose it to anyone else who asked. In other words, you should consider any information you release under the Act as if it were being released to the world at large.
This does not prevent you voluntarily giving information to certain people outside the provisions of the Act.