If a public authority really wants to find a way to refuse a request under the Freedom of Information Act, it will be able to do so.

That’s a slightly cynical perspective but it’s also one that can be borne out by the reality of FOI exemptions. They cover a very wide range of information. Exemptions cover everything from national security reasons to commercial confidentially.

FOI exemptions exist to allow public authorities to not publish everything that is asked for in the FOI requests they receive. Applying exemptions to requests is part of a legitimate response to an FOI request – it’s the public authority’s job to consider whether any exemptions apply.

The FOI Act was created to favour disclosure of information over withholding it but this may not be the case. In total there are 23 exemptions to the FOI Act. These exemptions allow an official to withhold information from disclosure for a variety of reasons. They include: protecting the United Kingdom and its interests at home and abroad; protecting the personal information of individuals; upholding the law and ensuring due process occurs and many more.

While there is no argument that everything should be disclosed, exemptions can often be applied inappropriately.

All requesters have the right to appeal the decisions given to them and challenge why they believe the exemptions have been applied incorrectly. In the first case appealing FOI exemptions should be done through an internal review with the public authority the request was made with. If this is unsuccessful, the response to the FOI request can be appealed to the FOI regulator, the Information Commissioner. From here appeals can be made through the courts. More can be found on how to appeal here. 

Qualified and Absolute exemptions

There are two types of exemption under the Freedom of Information Act, ‘Qualified Exemptions’ where the public interest is applied to all requests and ‘Absolute Exemptions’. There is no public interest test for the latter type of exemption.

Qualified Exemptions: These require a public authority to complete a Public Interest Test to the information that has been request. More of the exemptions in the Act are qualified exemptions than the number that are absolute.

The Public Interest Test for a qualified exemption should take into account whether, in all circumstances, the need to withhold information outweighs the public interest in it being disclosed. This balancing is in favour of the requester as the balancing of the public interest test can be challenged through the complaints’ system.

Absolute Exemptions: These are very difficult to challenge. If information calls within the scope of an absolute exemption the public authority does not have to disclose it. There is no public interest test applied to absolute exemptions.

Here is a list of all the exemptions that can be applied to the Freedom of Information Act and where more information can be found about them. The Ministry of Justice guidance that is linked to may be out of date, but gives an overview of how the exemptions are broadly applied.


Section 21 – Information accessible by other means (this often means it is already in the public domain, in which case the authority is obliged to direct you to where it is held).

Section 23 – National Security – Information supplied by, or relating to, bodies dealing with security matters (a certificate signed by a Minister of the Crown is conclusive proof that the exemption is justified. There is a separate appeals mechanism against such certificates)

Section 32 – Court Records

Section 34 – Parliamentary Privilege – a certificate signed by the Speaker of the House, in respect of the House of Commons, or by the Clerk of the Parliament, in respect of the House of Lords is conclusive proof that the exemption is justified.

Section 36 – Effective Conduct of Public Affairs – so far as relating to information held by the House of Commons or the House of Lords.

Section 40 – Personal Information – where the applicant is the subject of the information. The applicant already has the right of ‘subject access’ under the Data Protection Act 1998; where the information concerns a third party and disclosure would breach one of the data protection principles.

Section 41 – Information provided ‘In Confidence’

Section 44 – Prohibitions on disclosure – where a disclosure is prohibited by an enactment or would constitute contempt of court.


Exemptions where the public interest test applies.

Section 22: Information Intended For Future Publication Exemption

Section 24: National security (other than information supplied by or relating to named security organisations, where the duty to consider disclosure in the public interest does not apply)

Section 26: Defence

Section 27: International relations

Section 28: Relations within the United Kingdom

Section 29: UK Economic Interests

Section 30: Investigations And Proceedings Conducted By Public Authorities

Section 31: Law Enforcement

Section 33: Audit Functions

Section 35: Formulation of government policy and Ministerial Communications

Section 36: Prejudice to effective conduct of public affairs (except information held by the House of Commons or the House of Lords)

Section 37: Communications with Her Majesty, the Royal Family or concerning honours

Section 38: Health And Safety

Section 39: Environmental Information – as this can be accessed through the Environmental Information Regulations

Section 40: Personal information relating to a third party access request

Section 42: Legal Professional Privilege

Section 43: Commercial Interests

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 (FOI) Act 2000?

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

How to complain about an FOI request – including to the ICO

Updated May 18, 2020: This article was originally published on September 15, 2012 and has since been updated with new information

I am a journalist and author. I am a journalist at the UK edition of WIRED magazine. In 2015, my first book Freedom of Information: A Practical Guide for UK Journalists, was published. My second book Reed Hastings: Building Netflix, was published in March 2020. I created FOI Directory in 2012 and have maintained it in my spare time ever since.