Government

Cheat Sheet: Freedom of Information Act 2000

How to get all the gory details from public sector organisations
Another law. What's this one about then?
The Freedom of Information Act 2000 is designed to give people easy access to information from public sector organisations, such as central and local government, emergency services, and health and education departments. This does not affect private sector organisations.

In the words of the Lord Chancellor, the act is "challenged with the task of reversing the working premise that everything is secret, unless otherwise stated, to a position where everything is public unless it falls into specified excepted cases".

So has the government given the green light for us to see the X-files?
Not exactly. While people are entitled to access public data, requests for information that could damage national security and top secret files are still off limits, the government has said. That means it is not possible to get a list of all MI6 employees and secret bases around the world but you should be able to find out the number of books in the local library.

According to the law, anyone, regardless of age, nationality or location can access information (providing it is not exempt) from the public authority. The authority must declare if it holds that information, and if it does, it must supply it.

What were the rumours of government paper shredders glowing red hot at Christmas 2004 all about?
These were only rumours though widely reported at the time. The Independent reported that several central government departments were destroying vast amounts of data in preparation for 1 January, when the act came into force and the majority of information became public. This was a national deadline for every public sector department and office to be ready to handle requests for information from the public but many left it until the last minute.

But they're all ready now?
Not quite - though they've had plenty of time to prepare. The act was written in 2000, as its name suggest, so departments have had five years to install new systems to handle requests. But some are still struggling to keep up.

So what information can I access?
It depends on what the department has decided to publish. By now each authority should have a publication scheme in place, which is a bit like a catalogue listing which data you can see. These lists have been signed off by the Information Commissioner; right now that's Richard Thomas.

Each authority publishes different kinds of information and is obliged to list the type of data it holds rather than individual documents, so you may have to ask a series of very specific questions to get the right answers.

How do I make a request?
It's easy. Just write a letter or email to the organisation from which you want the information. State what you need and provide your contact information. The authority then has 20 working days to answer you.

How do I implement FOI in my organisation?
Wake up! This should have been done before 1 January. The best thing to do is refer to the Department of Constitutional Affairs' website. Drink a lot of coffee, prop up your eyelids with matchsticks and prepare yourself for five years' of work and a slap on the wrist from the Information Commissioner for being slow.

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