Below we provide a short guide to freedom of information (FOI) rights for voluntary organisations and campaign groups - how to use the right and how to appeal, along with some useful examples of where FOI has been successfully used in the past.
For more detailed information on using your FOI rights, visit www.itspublicknowledge.info/yourrights.
The following guide to FOI for voluntary organisations can also be downloaded in PDF format here:
What is freedom of information?
Freedom of information (FOI) provides individuals and organisations with a right of access to the information held by public authorities. Under FOI, there is a presumption in favour of the requester and, in most cases, you are entitled to receive the information you request. Public authorities can only withhold information where the law expressly allows them to.
How might FOI be used by my organisation?
FOISA gives you a right to request any information which might be held by a public authority. You might ask to see information that could assist and support individual clients, or to pursue wider issues relating to your organisation or its campaigns. Information uncovered using FOI can also be used to generate media coverage of your organisation and its work.
Some examples of past use of FOI by voluntary organisations and campaign groups in the UK are detailed below. (Please note that the Commissioner cannot be held responsible for the content of external websites):
If you have used FOI successfully in your work then we'd love to hear about it. Alternatively, if you've experienced any problems in using your FOI rights and would like advice, or would simply like some support in making a first request, then please get in touch. You can contact us by phoning 01334 464610, or by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org.
Who is covered?
The Freedom of Information (Scotland) Act 2002 (FOISA), applies to over 10,000 public authorities in Scotland. This includes the Scottish Government, the Scottish Parliament, local authorities, the police, educational institutions and the NHS. The Act also applies to bodies such as the Scottish Environment Protection Agency, the Scottish Social Services Council, the Scottish Commission for the Regulation of Care and the Office of the Scottish Charity Regulator (OSCR).
Separate legislation, the Freedom of Information Act 2000, covers public authorities in England, Wales and Northern Ireland, as well as non-devolved public authorities operating in Scotland (such as the Department for Work and Pensions and the Ministry of Defence).
What kind of information can be requested?
FOISA applies to all recorded information held by an authority. This includes all information held in paper files, electronic documents or databases, and will cover minutes of meetings, copies of emails, reports, discussion papers and spreadsheets. The FOISA right even covers photographs, CD-Roms and audio or video recordings.
How do I make an FOI request?
Requests must be made in writing (letter, fax or email) or another recordable format. You must also include your name, and an address for correspondence. The authority is required to respond to your request within 20 working days, either by providing the information or setting out why, according to FOISA they are entitled to withhold it. It is, however, much easier for an authority to release information than withhold it.
More details on the FOI request process are available at www.itspublicknowledge.info/yourrights.
Do I have to say why I want the information?
No. When making requests, you are not obliged to tell the authority who you represent or why you want the information, although you can, of course, choose to provide this information if you wish.
What can be withheld?
FOISA allows authorities to withhold information in certain circumstances, e.g. where its release would breach the right to privacy provided by data protection legislation, or where it would damage national security or seriously harm an organisation's commercial interests. Even where an exemption can be applied, however, an authority is, in most cases, obliged to consider the public interest before deciding that it should be withheld. This 'public interest test' sets out that information can only be withheld where the public interest favouring non-disclosure outweighs the public interest in release.
Information requests can also be refused if it costs the authority over ?600 to provide the information, if the request is considered to be 'vexatious' (although this is rarely used), or, of course, where the authority does not hold the information.
What will it cost?
For most requests, the information will be provided free of charge. FOISA sets out that information which it costs an authority ?100 or less to provide should be free of charge. For requests which cost an authority between ?100 and ?600 to provide, the authority can charge 10% of that cost (i.e. a maximum charge of ?50), although many authorities choose to waive this charge.
Authorities are legitimately entitled to refuse requests for information where it would cost them over ?600 to provide it, although they should also give you advice, where possible, on what can be provided within the ?600 cost limit.
(If you are making a request to a public authority based in England, Wales or Northern Ireland, the charging regime will be slightly different. For further information, refer to the (UK) Information Commissioner's website at www.ico.gov.uk.)
Can I appeal if information is withheld?
Yes. You can appeal where information is withheld, or where you are otherwise unhappy with an authority's handling of your request (e.g. if it fails to respond within 20 working days). There are two stages of appeal.
The first stage is to appeal directly to the authority, asking them to review their response to your initial request. The authority will then have a further 20 working days to respond.
If you remain unhappy at the end of this period, you have the right to appeal to the Scottish Information Commissioner. On receipt of an appeal the Commissioner will conduct a full investigation. If this investigation concludes that an authority has failed to act in accordance with FOISA, the Commissioner has the power to force the release of the information. Further information on the appeal process is available at www.itspublicknowledge.info/yourrights.
The following hints and tips may be helpful when making a request:
Further tips when making FOI requests are available from www.itspublicknowledge.info/yourrights.
Are voluntary or charitable organisations covered by FOISA?
For most of these organisations, the answer will be no. Requests received by most charity and voluntary organisations will not qualify as FOI requests, and there will be no legal duty to respond in terms of FOISA. This does not, of course, mean that voluntary organisations and charities should not respond to the requests they receive, just that there is no legal obligation to do so, and no right of appeal to the Scottish Information Commissioner.
FOISA provides three routes through which organisations may be covered by the legislation. These are:
Is FOISA likely to be extended in future?
The issue of whether the FOI legislation should be extended is currently under consideration by the Scottish Government. The focus of the debate is primarily on whether registered social landlords, local authority trusts (e.g. bodies set up by local authorities to run leisure facilities), and contractors who provide public services that are a function of a public authority (for example, contractors providing prison services), should be brought within the scope of FOISA.
For more information visit www.scotland.gov.uk/Topics/Government/FOI.