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Freedom of Information Advice

The right under the Freedom of Information Act (FOI) and the Environmental Information Regulations (EIR) to request information held by public authorities, known as "the right to know", came into force on 1st January 2005.

Brief Introduction to The Freedom of Information and The Data Protection Act

The The Data Protection Act is the sister act to the Freedom of Information Act, and the Information Commissioner - formerly the Data Protection Commissioner - is responsible for enforcing both.

Whereas the Freedom of Information Act and the Environmental Information Regulations (EIR) allow you access to a vast range of information on public issues, the DPA gives you a right of access to personal data and protects it from others.

As a general rule, any information you can access about yourself under the DPA cannot be released to others under the FOIA and the EIR. However, some personal information might be disclosed to third parties if it is deemed not to breach the data protection principles set out in the DPA.

The Information Commissioner's Office (ICO) enforces and promotes the Act and the EIR. It has responsibility for ensuring information is disclosed promptly and exemptions from disclosure are applied lawfully.

What the Freedom of Information Act will mean for you.

The Freedom of Information Act and the Environmental Information Regulations allow you access to recorded information (such as emails, meeting minutes, research or reports) held by public authorities in England, Northern Ireland and Wales.

A public authority includes:

  • central government and government departments
  • local authorities (councils)
  • hospitals, doctors' surgeries, dentists, pharmacists and opticians
  • state schools, colleges and universities
  • police forces and prison services

Exemptions from the Freedom of Information Act and the Public Interest Test.

There are 23 exemptions in the Act, some of which are 'absolute' and some 'qualified' (information relating to national security and commercially sensitive information, for example), and 12 exceptions from disclosure in the EIR, all of which are qualified.

Where information falls under an absolute exemption, the harm to the public interest that would result from its disclosure is already established, so there is no public interest test.

If the information is covered by a qualified exemption or exception the public interest test must be applied.

The public interest test favours disclosure where a qualified exemption or an exception applies. In such cases, information may be withheld only if it is considered that the public interest in withholding information is greater than the public interest in disclosing it.