"Freedom of information" (FOI) is a concept closely related to freedom of speech and is in essence about:
- our inherent right to access and share information
- making it easy for people to access information by removing existing barriers and preventing the creation of new barriers
The term "Freedom of Information" is commonly used to refer to legislation that regulates access to government-held information.
The Freedom of Information Act 2000 and Freedom of Information (Scotland) Act 2002 introduced a public "right to know" in relation to public bodies in the UK. They give any person the legal right to ask for and be given any information which is held by a public authority
The legislation does not simply require public authorities to respond to requests, they must also adopt and maintain pro-active "publication schemes" for the routine release of important information (such as annual reports and accounts). All publication schemes must be approved by the Information Commissioner, who is responsible for promoting access to official information and protecting personal information.
Anyone may make a request by writing to the public authority believed to hold the information required. They should provide the information to you within 20 working days - if more time than this is required, they must write to you and tell you both when they will be able to answer your request and why they need more time.
At the moment, authorities can refuse requests if:
- the information is considered sensitive
- complying with the request would cost more than £600 in the case of government departments and £450 for other public bodies (only the cost of finding and extracting the information can currently be taken into account)
Changes to the legislation
On 16 October 2006 the Department for Constitutional Affairs published an independent review of the impact of the Freedom of Information Act 2000. It recommended that changes be made to the way that the costs of responding to requests are calculated, so that they be "reflective of the actual costs of delivering FoI."
The government has subsequently published a consultation paper detailing the changes it proposes to make and inviting responses from the public. There is considerable concern that these changes would make it easier for FOI requests to be rejected.
Michael Cashman, MEP for the West Midlands and Labour spokesperson on human rights, is campaigning for public access to the EU institutions' documents.
- Fees for FoI requests by Oonagh Gay. The House of Commons Library Standard Note.
- Freedom of Information Act 2000
- Freedom of Information (Scotland) Act 2002
- The DCA's Freedom of Information - a government site dedicated to providing information about the Freedom of Information Act
- The Information Commissioner's Office - an independent authority set up to promote access to official information and to protect personal information
- Campaign for Freedom of Information - a non-profit organisation working to improve public access to official information and ensure that the Freedom of Information Act is implemented effectively
- Department for Constitutional Affairs - a government department responsible for upholding justice, rights and democracy
- 2007-07-26 - Kable - Committee satisfied with FoI regime
- Summary: Parliament's Constituitonal Affairs Committee has categorically rejected the government's case for new arrangements in handling Freedom of Information requests. In a report into the government's proposed changes to the charging system for FoI requests, published on 25 June 2007, the committee said the government had failed to review adequately whether the existing arrangements balance public access rights with the needs of public authorities.
- 2007-07-25 - Constitutional Affairs Committee Press Release - Government's climb-down on FOI fees is the only right move, says committee
- Summary: The Government today at 12.30 pm published its response to the Constitutional Affairs Select Committee report on proposed changes to the fees charged to people and organizations seeking information under Freedom of Information legislation. The response is being published to coincide with a Government announcement on a "change in culture to make Government more open". Commenting on the Government's response, Chairman of the Committee Rt Hon Alan Beith MP said: "Obviously we greatly welcome the fact that the Government has seen sense and accepted our position - and that of the many people and organisations who have made good use of freer access to information - and not changed the charging regime as they had planned. To go ahead with their proposed changes would have been a great mistake - as the expression goes; it wasn't broke, don't fix it." "We are however disappointed that they have largely ignored our point about independently funding the Office of the Information Commissioner - can it be appropriate for the Ministry of Justice to set the funding levels for the independent regulator and thereby directly influence its capacity to investigate complaints? The Commissioner would be in a far stronger position if he became an Officer of Parliament, like the Ombudsman. I am sure that Parliament will want to return to the issue of independence."
- 2007-05-22 - Liberal Democrats - Liberal Democrats launch petition on Freedom of Information
- Summary: The Liberal Democrats today launched a national petition against proposals to exempt MPs from Freedom of Information rules. The petition calls on all political parties to back the campaign. Edward Davey MP, Chief of Staff to Liberal Democrat Leader, Menzies Campbell, today called on Gordon Brown and David Cameron to sign up to oppose the Bill. Edward Davey said: "There should not be one law for MPs and one for everyone else. Exempting politicians from Freedom of Information requests only adds to the public perception of Parliament being opaque and clouded in secrecy." "If Gordon Brown is serious about reforming our democracy this is his first real test. If David Cameron is serious about new politics now is the time to show real leadership rather than grandstanding."
- 2007-05-21 - Liberal Democrats - Liberal Democrats pledge to continue the battle over the Freedom of Information Bill
- Author: Simon Hughes MP
- Summary: The Liberal Democrats today pledged to take their battle over the Freedom of Information Bill both to the House of Lords and across the country. Liberal Democrat Shadow Justice Secretary, Simon Hughes MP said: "We will be contacting all members of the House of Lords and ask them to use their judgement and their votes to block this bill." "We will also start a public campaign in all parts of the country where Conservative and Labour MPs have voted to support these reductions on the public’s right to know, ensuring that nobody can be in any doubt as to who must take responsibility for these dangerous plans making progress."
- 2007-05-18 - The Guardian - MPs back 'squalid' curbs on FoI
- Author: Hélène Mulholland
- Summary: MPs today backed a controversial bid to exempt themselves from the Freedom of Information Act - a move described by opponents as "squalid". The Tory private member's freedom of information (amendment) bill secured its third reading by 96 votes to 25, a majority of 71.
- 2007-04-26 - Liberal Democrats - Underhand Freedom of Information must be stopped
- Author: Simon Hughes MP
- Summary: Speaking ahead of the resumed debate on the controversial Freedom of Information (Amendment) Bill expected tomorrow, Liberal Democrat Shadow Constitutional Affairs Secretary, Simon Hughes MP said:"Things are looking good in our attempt to stop this stake through the heart of the Freedom of Information Act." "This underhand Bill would fundamentally undermine Parliament’s transparency. Democratic institutions have an obligation to be accountable and the right to information is a key part of this." "I am confident there will be a good number of opponents to this Bill and we have a better than evens chance of preventing it from progressing any further progress." "More and more MPs have realised that the Government and opposition front benches are conspiring to kill freedom of information." "The Freedom of Information Amendment Bill now has over 70 amendments tabled and there will likely be more." "There is now one other Bill which is to be debated first - the Building Societies (Funding) and Mutual Societies (Transfers) Bill. This Bill has already had one new clause and six amendments tabled with the possibility of yet more to be added."
- 2007-03-25 - The Observer (comment is free) - Stop treating us like children, Lord Falconer
- Author: Henry Porter
- Summary: Few members of the government manage to finesse with quite the charm and affability of the Lord Chancellor, Lord Falconer. He lectures us on Magna Carta and boasts about government openness without the slightest sign of personal unease or, for that matter, criticism. But with the announcement on the new rules concerning the Freedom of Information Act, the game is surely up. In a little-reported lecture on budget day, he said: 'The government approaches openness on the basis of improving how government operates, for the benefit of the public... the job of government is not to provide page leads for papers, but information for the citizen. Freedom of information was never considered to be a research arm for the media.'
- 2007-03-25 - The Independent - Freedom of Information Act misused, says Falconer
- Author: Robert Verkaik
- Summary: Ministers were yesterday accused of adopting a "bunker" mentality after the Lord Chancellor, Lord Falconer, launched an all-out assault on the media over its alleged misuse of the freedom of information laws. Lord Falconer last night told journalists that they must stop using the Freedom of Information Act to mount fishing expeditions aimed at uncovering stories about the government.
- 2007-01-08 - The Telegraph - Freedom of information? It's laughable
- Author: Philip Johnston
- Summary: Freedom of information always seems like a good idea to opposition parties, but once in office they tend to be less generous with the information that they now control. So it has proved with Labour. ... Ostensibly, this is being done to save £12 million a year, but in reality it is an attempt to curb the prying that has gone too far for Labour's liking.
- 2006-12-30 - The Independent - What freedom of information?
- Author: Robert Verkaik
- Summary: Labour's flagship freedom of information laws are being blocked by ministers who are increasingly refusing to answer routine inquiries about government policy, new figures show. ... The legal challenge will be followed by the introduction of regulations designed to stop the media from making full use of the new powers. These regulations represent a direct attack on the spirit of the law, once heralded by Labour as the end of the culture of Whitehall secrecy. The media and other organisations will be restricted to a handful of requests a year, while the time taken by officials and ministers to consult and consider requests will now be counted when calculating whether people should be charged for any disclosure.
- 2006-12-28 - Evening Standard - Ministers accused of undermining FOI laws as 30 per cent of requests rebuffed
- Summary: Ministers have slashed the amount of information they allow the public to know, a report has revealed. It showed that a string of Whitehall departments have tightened the secrecy surrounding their activities despite Tony Blair's promise that Labour would bring an era of open government. ...The cutback in what Whitehall allows the public to find out comes in advance of Lord Falconer's planned new restrictions on freedom of information law. These would prevent MPs, lobby groups or journalists from putting more than one request in every three months, and which would also greatly increase the number of requests turned down on the grounds that they would cost too much in bureaucrats' time. Critics say the effect of Lord Falconer's new rules will be to ensure that the only people who would be allowed to get information out of Whitehall would be those who do not ask for it.
- 2006-12-28 - The Guardian - Media law review of the year
- Author: Edgar Forbes
- Summary: A backlog of freedom of information requests prompted the information commissioner to call for more cash, while providing Lord Falconer, secretary of state for constitutional affairs, with an excuse to look at tightening up rules about the use of civil servants' time that may make it even more difficult for the media to obtain information.
- 2006-12-19 - The Economist - Every expense spared
- Summary: There are better targets for penny-pinching than the cheap and effective Freedom of Information Act, but watering it down might make official lives a bit easier.
- 2006-12-18 - Financial Times - [Neutering Freedom of Information Act]
- Summary: The government last week gave opponents of its plans to neuter, for all practical purposes, the 2005 Freedom of Information Act until April to make their case. It appears to be banking on a lukewarm response and a failure to grasp its obfuscatory reasoning. ... This is an insult to the public intelligence and a negation of one of the Labour government's most important reforms.
- 2006-12-15 – The Times – Ministers curb freedom of information
- Author: Sam Coates
- Summary: Despite a barrage of criticism from politicians and media organisations, the Department for Constitutional Affairs is pressing ahead with changes to the Freedom of Information Act that will restrict the release of controversial information. ... The legal challenge will be followed by the introduction of regulations designed to stop the media from making full use of the new powers. These regulations represent a direct attack on the spirit of the law, once heralded by Labour as the end of the culture of Whitehall secrecy. The media and other organisations will be restricted to a handful of requests a year, while the time taken by officials and ministers to consult and consider requests will now be counted when calculating whether people should be charged for any disclosure.
- 2006-12-15 - The Independent - Proposed curbs on Freedom of Information
- Author: Matthew Beard
- Summary: Attempts to unearth government secrets using the Freedom of Information (FoI) Act will be severely curtailed under plans outlined yesterday.
- 2006-12-15 - eGov monitor - Consultation on Freedom of Information fees regulations
- Summary: A consultation paper on draft Freedom of Information fee regulations has been published by the Department for Constitutional Affairs. The draft Freedom of Information and Data Protection (Appropriate Limit and Fees) Regulations 2007 will implement the changes the Government announced it was considering 16 October 2006. The draft regulations will extend the existing provisions by allowing public authorities to* include reading time, consideration time and consultation time in the calculation of the limit above which requests could be refused on cost grounds; and * aggregate requests made by any person or persons apparently acting in concert to each public authority for the purposes of calculating the appropriate limit.
- 2006-12-14 - Press Gazette - Consultation begins on Govt bid to "neuter" Freedom of Information
- Author: Dominic Ponsford
- Summary: Lord Falconer's Department of Constitutional Affairs today began a 12-week consultation on changes to the Freedom of Information Act which journalists fear could severely curtail its power. ... Everyone involved in journalism should do their best to ensure that the FoI Act is not now "neutered", as the Newspaper Society put it, while it is still in its infancy. We must protect the principle, enshrined in the current act, that Government information should be disclosed to the press unless the public interest in keeping it private clearly outweighs the public interest in making it known.
- 2006-12-04 - The Guardian - Afraid of the daylight
- Author: David Leigh
- Summary: Given their record, no wonder ministers want to sabotage the Freedom of Information Act ... As a piece of chutzpah, this takes some beating.