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Why was it introduced (political sociological context)?
The Freedom of Information Act of 2000 [‘the Act’] was passed by the UK Parliament in 2000 and came into force in its entirety in 2005. The Act prescribes a statutory right of access to information held by public authorities and public sector organisations, pursuant to conditions contained within the Act. The political and sociological context preceding the act pertained to a growing need for transparency in government. The parliamentary debates leading to the Act was primarily spurred by the Labour Government’s publication of a White Paper titled ‘Your Right to Know’ in 1997, propounding openness of government and lack of secrecy so as to ensure trust between the people of the UK and the government. In light of limited rights to access governmental information by the general public, parliamentary debates ensued that debated the introduction of a statutory right to access governmental information, culminating in the Act.
What was the aim of the Act (legal context)?
The primary aim of the Act is to introduce a statutory right of the people to access official information held by public authorities so as to ensure the right to freedom of information as well as governmental transparency and accountability. Accordingly, the Act obliges all public authorities to publish certain information about their activities as well as permitting members of the public to request information from public authorities.
What main changes did it make to the law?
The Act was the first statutory instrument that made provisions for the disclosure of information that is held by public authorities. It is also the first statutory recognition of the public’s right to freedom of information. The Act permits any person to make a request for information to a public authority and obliges public authorities to communicate any and all relevant information that is subject to request by any member of the public, albeit with certain statutory exceptions.
In introducing this statutory framework, the provisions of the Act resulted in amendments to other relevant laws concerning the storage and privacy of information. For example, the Data Protection Act of 1998, which prescribes protections on personal data stored electronically, was amended by the Act in relation to data of public bodies. Further, the Act resulted in major amendments to the Public Records Act of 1958, which prescribes a regulatory framework for the treatment of information pertaining to public authorities. The 1958 Act stipulates the means of depositing information by public authorities and provides that confidential governmental information was to be transferred to the ‘Public Record Office’ deposit (30) years after creation, and opened (50) years after creation. The introduction of the Act in 2000 altered this regulatory framework and permitting the opening of such information upon request and without any time limitations.
The Act prescribes a general right of access to information held by public authorities, stipulating its scope, yet also prescribes certain exemptions to the general rule.
Firstly, the Act prescribes a right of access to information held by public authorities, (s1), stipulating that any person may make a request for certain information that is held by a public authority and is entitled to a written communication by the public authority as to whether they hold the relevant information (s1(1)(a)) and, if so, to provide that information (s1(1)(b)). The public authority is under a duty to, as to the question of whether they hold the information, to “confirm or deny” (s1(6)) and is obliged to communicate the relevant information that forms the subject of the request (s1(5)).
Secondly, as to the scope of the Act, the Act applies solely to public authorities and bodies that are defined within the Act as well as bodies subject to an order of the Secretary of State and publicly-owned companies (s3). The “Public Authorities” to which the Act applies are listed in Schedule 1 and include governmental departments, House of Commons, House of Lords, armed forces, local authorities, the National Health Service, public educational institutions, the police, and others. Further, the Secretary of State may designate a body as a public authority for the purposes of the Act if the body is exercising the functions of a public authority and/or is under a contract with a public authority (s5). Publicly-owned companies also fall within the scope of the Act (s6).
Thirdly, the Act prescribes certain exemptions to the access of information of public authorities. The overarching test is the ‘public interest’ tests, by which the public interest in excluding the information outweighs the public interest to disclose (s2(1)). A list of exemptions are prescribed in Part II, and include, for example, absolute exemptions such as when the information is accessible by other means (s21), the information relates to bodies dealing with national security matters (s23), and so on. The Act also includes exemptions related to certain classes of information, such as legally-privileged information (s42) and trade secrets (s 43), as well as exemptions with a prejudicial effect, such as those likely to prejudice international relations (s 27), the economy (s29), law enforcement (s31), and so on.
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