The Freedom of Information Act 2000 is transparency law in the United Kingdom. It exists to provide a legal route to accessing information created by public bodies as they fulfil their duties. More than 100,000 organisations – from schools and councils to NHS trusts and police forces – are covered by the FOI Act.
The law itself was passed in the year 2000, however it wasn’t enacted until 2005. This grace period was written into the legislation, which transparency campaigners had worked to make a reality for 20 years, to ensure organisations had enough time to prepare to answer requests for information.
There are two functions to the FOI Act: firstly, for a ‘public authority’ to routinely publish information (via a publication scheme); secondly, they must also answer requests for information.
The latter of these two obligations is the most commonly associated with the FOI Act – and is also the most controversial. Around the UK hundreds of thousands of FOI requests are made every year. There is no central repository of FOI requests. However, here’s an overview of the two FOI Act obligations.
Requests for information
- Anyone on the planet can write to a public authority in the UK and ask to be provided with information
- The request has to be made in writing, however it does not need to be made to a named individual
- Requests for information are free and do not cost any money
- The definition of information is wide. It can be in any of the following formats: printed documents, computer files, letters, emails, photographs, sound or video recordings and more
- The FOI Act says the public authority has to reply to the request promptly and in any case within 20 working days, in most circumstances, to say whether the information is withheld
- If the information is held the public authority either has to disclose it, or apply one of the Act’s exemptions to refuse the request
- The public authority should let an individual know whether they are being provided with the information they have asked for. If they are not providing the information they should inform the requester of the reasons why
As well as responding to requests for information under the Act public authorities are also required to publish information on a regular basis.
Each authority must have a publication scheme, which sets out the information it routinely publishes.
The Information Commissioner’s Office provides a model publication scheme detailing the information, which must be published routinely, authorities are free to add to this but must publish the minimum information set out by the scheme.
The publication scheme should be made by each authority on its website
The Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) is responsible for governing the FOI Act in the UK. It has enforcement powers that include telling a public authority to publish information and taking enforcement action to make sure information is published. The FOI Act does not include any powers to fine public authorities that don’t fulfil their obligations under the law.
As well as Freedom of Information, the ICO is also responsible for enforcing data protection issues under the Data Protection Act 2018. It also governs marketing messages under the Privacy and Electronic Communications Regulations, the Environmental Information Regulations and other information rights laws.
More in this guide
The following pages give more information about the FOI Act and the rights of a requester.
What is the Freedom of Information Act (FOI) response time?
Who is covered by the Freedom of Information (FOI) Act – are private companies?
How to make an FOI request
The Freedom of Information (FOI) Act exemptions explained
How to complain about an FOI request – including to the ICO
Updated January 23, 2021: This article was originally published on January 6, 2013 and has since been updated with new information