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Accessing information using the Freedom of Information Act
The Freedom of Information Act provides for a legal right of access to non personal information held by public authorities. In addition, it requires the authority to proactively make information that it holds available to the public. The right of access is for information held by or on behalf of the public authority, even if the authority does not own that information.
All public authorities are required to produce a Publication Scheme, laying out all the published information that it holds, and how to access it. The Scheme can be obtained from the authority’s website, or by contacting the authority.
So if you are interested in accessing information held by a public authority you could check whether it has been made available through the Publication Scheme. Examples of information that you may find available are policies and procedures, statistics and financial information.
Making a request
The authority also has a legal duty to provide information on request. To make a request, you should write (or email or fax – but it must be in writing) to the authority you think holds the information, describing the information you want. If you need the information in a particular form (for instance, if you want to see a copy of a letter, or you want a bulky report to be provided in electronic form) you should say so in your request.
If you are unsure of how to frame your request, or if the authority is not able to identify the information from your request, they have a duty to provide advice and assistance so as to help you clarify your request. It may therefore be a good idea to speak to the authority’s Information Officer before making your request, so he can help you frame your request most effectively.
The authority should comply with your request within 20 working days. It may need to extend this time limit, if it needs to consider whether it is in the public interest to disclose the information, but if so it should inform you in writing that it needs a time extension, with reasons as to why it is necessary and with an indication of when it expects to be able to respond.
There should be no charge for accessing the information. However, if the cost of retrieving and providing the information exceeds the ‘appropriate limit’ there is no duty on the authority to comply with the request. At the moment the appropriate limit is £600.00 for requests to central government and £450.00 for requests to local authorities. This amounts to one employee spending 36 hours in the case of central government, or 24 hours in the case of local authorities, locating, sorting and compiling the information.
There may be a charge for copying and postage, but this should be reasonable (i.e. around 10 pence per A4 copy)