Friday, 8 February 2013

The Freedom of Information Act

The Freedom of Information Act 2000 is an Act of Parliament of the United Kingdom that creates a public "right of access" to information held by public authorities. It is the implementation of freedom of information legislation in the United Kingdom on a national level. The Act implements a manifesto commitment of the Labour Party in the 1997 general election, developed by Dr David Clark as a 1997 White Paper. The full provisions of the act came into force on 1 January 2005.

There are some public organisations that do not enjoy having to provide information for requests. But the legislation was intended to make such organisations more accountable. Many organisations actually welcome the requests being made as it furthers their public record on accountability. These organisations have embraced the whole concept of accountability.

As well as the "general right of access", the Act places a duty on public authorities to adopt and maintain pro-active "publication schemes" for the routine release of important information such as annual reports and accounts.There are some public organisations that do not enjoy having to provide the information and are sometimes deliberately tardy in doing so. Many FoI requests are to obtain information that should have been published already.

Facts that have recently been brought to light by this Act include:

  • Ministers and MPs claimed thousands of pounds on taxis as part of £5.9 million in expenses for travel.
  • Foreign diplomats – who have diplomatic immunity – were accused of rapes, sexual assaults, child abuse and murders while working in Britain.
  • Seventy-four police officers serving with the Metropolitan Police have criminal records.
  • A clandestine British torture programme existed in post-war Germany, “reminiscent of the concentration camps.”
  • Nearly 1,000 doctors and surgeons have criminal records including child porn and sexual assault offences. The figures have been revealed by the General Medical Council in response to a Freedom of Information request.
  • Nearly 12,000 people over the past five years were wrongly labelled criminals due to inaccurate record checks, leading to £1.9m paid out in compensation. The figures, published by privacy and civil liberties campaign group Big Brother Watch after a freedom of information request, showed the most common errors involved information being disclosed by local police forces or the police national computer.
  • A damning report by safety experts has revealed that staff at Britain's most important nuclear site did "not have the level of capability required to respond to nuclear emergencies effectively". In response to a freedom of information request, the Office for Nuclear Regulation said errors by senior fire officers in a preparedness exercise at Sellafield "could have led to delays in responding to the nuclear emergency and a prolonged release of radioactive material off-site".
  • According to The Children's Society support for the 100,000 children who run away from home every year, many of them fleeing physical or sexual abuse, is extremely limited and in large parts of the country shows no signs of improving. The Society sent freedom of information requests to all 150 councils in England and the 43 regional police forces and found that two-thirds of the councils had no specific programme to help runaways, while a similar proportion was unable to provide emergency accommodation. Almost half of all police forces were unable to say how many children went missing in their area each year.
  • The Department for Education's difficulties with implementing the Freedom of Information Act have been re-emphasized in the most recent release of statistics on the performance of government departments. In the latest quarter it had the worst record out of all department in England for responding to FoI requests within the legal time limit. As a result the Department has been put under special monitoring by the Information Commissioner's Office.
  • In September the DfE abandoned the controversial legal case it had been fighting to try to establish that emails sent by ministers on personal accounts are not covered by the FOI Act. The position was in defiance of the clear stance adopted by the Information Officer, who had already ruled that all emails sent on government business could fall under FOI, whether an official or private account was used.
  • Three other public authorities have also been targeted by the ICO for close monitoring due to their unsatisfactory handling of FOI applications.
  • A controversial type of bullet used to kill Charles de Menezes has been given to Cambridgeshire's armed police. The revelation that the constabulary has armed officers with the bullet - which was banned in warfare more than a century ago - came after a Freedom of Information request.

The Freedom of Information Act gives you the right to ask any public sector organisation for all the recorded information they have on any subject. Anyone can make a request for information – there are no restrictions on your age, nationality or where you live. If you ask for information about yourself, then your request will be handled under the Data Protection Act.

You can request information from publicly funded organisations that work for the welfare of the whole population, eg: Government departments, Local councils, chools, colleges and universities, health trusts,, hospitals and doctors’ surgeries, publicly funded museums, the police, non-departmental public bodies, committees and advisory bodies.

To view the full list of public authorities covered by the Freedom of Information Act. Click Here

You can contact an organisation directly by letter or email to make a freedom of information (FOI) request.

When making your request, you should include: 
Your name, an address where you can be contacted, a detailed description of the recorded information you want. Most requests are free but you might be asked to pay a small amount for photocopies or postage. You will be told by the organisation if you have to pay anything. You should receive the information within 20 working days. If the organisation needs more time, they will contact you and tell you when you can expect the information.

Before you do make a request information: 
First find contact details of the government department, agency or public body you want to make an FOI request to.Organisations may already publish this information on their website.You could check to see if the organisation you are making an FOI request to has given the information before as a result of someone else’s request. 

What do They Know: is one such site Click Here For instance a search on WDTK on "Canal and Rivers Trust" reveals 214 FoI requests have been made. Click Here  Or a search on "British Waterways" reveals a further 177 requests that have been made. In the last 7 years of BW control 177 requests for information were made. In the first six months of CaRT 214 requests for information have been made.

Make a request for environmental information:
You have certain rights to environmental information under the Environmental Information Regulations. For example, you can request information about air or water quality, noise and waste as well as any policies, decisions or activities that could affect them. You can find out more about requesting environmental information from the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) website. Click Here

Some sensitive information might not be available to members of the public. If this is the case, the organisation must tell you why they have withheld some or all of the information you requested. An organisation can turn down your request if they think it will cost them more than £450 (£600 for a central government organisation) to deal with your request. (Splitting down a FoI request into smaller parts will often bring the costs down. In this way information can be aggregated together from several requests.

They might then ask you to be more specific so they can provide the information you’re looking for. If an organisation doesn't want provide you with the information you request, you should first contact them and ask them to review their decision. If you are still not satisfied, you can complain to the Information Commissioner’s Office. Click Here

The Campaign for Freedom of Information is a lobbying group based in the United Kingdom that campaigns for Freedom of information in the United Kingdom and against unnecessary secrecy by the UK Government. The Campaign for Freedom of Information is a non-profit organisation working to improve public access to official information and ensure that the Freedom of Information Act is implemented effectively.

The Campaign was set-up in 1984, played a leading role in the passage of the FOI Act and is recognised as a leading independent authority in the field. They provide advice to individuals in exercising their rights to information. They provide training both for public authorities implementing the Act and for users of the legislation. 

They are not affiliated to any political party. Their main funding comes from charitable sources including the Joseph Rowntree Charitable Trust, the Allen Lane Foundation, the Nuffield Foundation, the GW Cadbury Charitable Trust and from supporting organisations and individuals. They are also grateful for a one off donation from Freedom to Care. Click Here

The Campaign for Freedom of Information provide on-line a "Short Guide to the Freedom of Information Act and Other New Access Rights" in PDF format. Click Here

UK Freedom of Information Blog containing news and developments on Freedom of Information in the UK. This blog is run by the Campaign for Freedom of Information. It was established in May 2003 by Steve Wood, who ran it until the end of February 2007 when he took up the post of Assistant Commissioner at the Information Commissioner's Office. Click Here


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