The Freedom of Information Act 2000 allows members of the public and press to submit Freedom of Information requests, which – if certain conditions are met – require public authorities to release any information they hold relating to the request.
This is important because it provides the public with the tools they need to hold the Government to account over the decisions it takes and the way they spend taxpayer money.
The ‘Your Right to Know’ white paper which preceded the Freedom of Information Act began by saying that “unnecessary secrecy in government leads to arrogance in governance and defective decision-making”. The Act was designed to make government more effective.
The Act covers central government departments and the executive agencies and public bodies they sponsor. It also covers Parliament, the armed forces, devolved administrations, local authorities, the NHS, schools, universities and police forces.
Schedule I of the Act provides a full list of organisations covered. As of 2013, companies that were wholly owned by the public sector or the Crown Estate also became subject to the Act.
Anyone can submit a Freedom of Information request. There are no restrictions on nationality, residency status or age. For a request to be valid, it must be sent directly to the relevant organisation, stating clearly what information is being requested, providing the requester’s real name with a valid address (postal or email) to where the reply can be sent.
In most circumstances, the request should be made in writing although if this is unreasonably difficult a verbal request may suffice. The Freedom of Information Act does not need to be cited in the request, although it is sometimes helpful to do so.
When Freedom of Information requests are submitted, the first thing a department must establish is whether the request is resolvable. If the department does not hold the information that is being requested, then the request is not deemed resolvable. It may also be the case that the request is unclear, in which case the department will provide the requester with advice on how to correctly formulate a request.
For requests that are resolvable, the department may choose to either provide all the information that has been requested, provide some of the information that has been requested while withholding some or withhold all the information that has been requested.
Government departments typically receive about 8,000 Freedom of Information requests every quarter. This rose from about 7,000 per quarter in 2010 to over 9,000 per quarter in 2014, before falling slightly in recent years. There tends to be a spike in the volume of requests in the first quarter of every year, although it is not clear why this happens.
The departments that receive the most requests are the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP), Ministry of Defence (MoD) and the Ministry of Justice (MoJ) who routinely receive more than 1,000 requests per quarter. Other departments – including the Home Office (HO), the Department for Transport (DfT) and Department of Health (DH) – have also received over 1,000 requests in some quarters.
Some departments are also more prone to withholding information. Typically, the Cabinet Office, Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO), and MoJ and HM Revenue & Customs (HMRC) are among the departments that grant the fewest Freedom of Information requests in full.
The new departments, in particular the Department for Exiting the EU (DExEU), are the most likely to refuse to comply with Freedom of Information requests.
The departments that grant the most requests are the Scotland Office, Wales Office and DfT.
Departments that routinely respond to fewer than 85% of Freedom on Information requests on time can be subject to special monitoring by the Information Commissioners Officer (ICO). The Department for International Development (DfID), DH, the Treasury, and DfT have never fallen below this target. Other departments, including the Home Office, Department for Environment, Food, and Rural Affairs (Defra), MoJ and the Department for Communities and Local Government (DCLG) have had prolonged periods where they failed to provide timely responses.
In recent years, the percentage of Freedom of Information requests that departments refuse to comply with has increased from 40% in Q3 2010 to 54% in Q2 2017.
A department can only withhold information under specific circumstances, namely if:
- One of the 23 exemptions outlined in the Freedom of Information Act – covering things such as national security and personal information – can be applied.
- The cost limit for complying with requests is breached. Currently this is £600 worth of resources (e.g. staff time) for central departments, Parliament and the armed forces. The cost limit is £450 for other public authorities.
- The request is deemed vexatious and is likely to “cause a disproportionate or unjustifiable level of distress, disruption or irritation”.
- The request is repeated, i.e. it is “identical or substantially similar” to a previous request by the same requester.
Cost limits and exemptions account for the vast majority of refused Freedom of Information requests, and since Q3 2010 the likelihood information being withheld for either of these two reasons has increased.
The most commonly applied exemptions relate to requests for personal information, information that is intended for future publication and information that would prejudice law enforcement. Some departments use certain exemptions more often, for example HMRC often refuses requests because it is prohibited by law from disclosing the information being requested.
If a person or organisation submitting a Freedom of Information request is unsatisfied with a department’s response, they can appeal the outcome. Appeals are first reviewed by the department itself, which decides whether to overturn its initial decision. If the department’s response at the appeal stage is still unsatisfactory, the original requester can take the appeal to the ICO, which makes a final decision on whether the department should disclose the information being requested.
In 2016, the Cabinet Office, DWP, DExEU and Department for International Trade (DIT), were the most likely to have their decisions face internal review. The Cabinet Office – the department responsible for Freedom of Information policy – was the most likely to have its decisions referred to the ICO.
Last year, 23% of decisions facing internal review were overturned or partly overturned.
Last year 21% of decisions taken to the ICO were overturned or partly overturned.