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 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 also the most controversial. Around the UK hundreds of thousands of FOI requests are made every year. Here’s an overview of the two FOI Act obligations.

Requests for information

  • Anyone on the planet can write to a public authority 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
  • Information can be in any of the following formats printed documents, computer files, letters, emails, photographs, sound or video recordings and more
  • The law 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 it is held the authority either has to disclose it, or rely on 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

Publication schemes

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

Governance

The Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) governs the FOI Act as well as other duties involving the management of Data Protection issues.


Next in this guide: 

The following pages give more information about the FOI Act and the rights of a requester.

Who is covered by the Freedom of Information Act?

How to send a request under the Act

Know your rights

How to complain about a request

The authority has not responded to my FOI request

Freedom of Information exemptions

Tips for making a request


Updated May 18, 2020: This article was originally published on January 6, 2013 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 since ever since.