In the UK the Freedom of Information Act 2000, Freedom of Information (Scotland) Act 2002, the Environmental Information Regulations 2004 and the Environmental Information (Scotland) Regulations 2004 give people anywhere in the world the right to be given information held by public authorities in the UK, subject to certain exemptions.
It is possible to request information from the UK and devolved Governments, from the police, local councils, the NHS, the prison authorities, the prosecution authorities, the court services and a whole range of other public bodies. Not only is it possible to request it, but you have the right to be given the information where it is not exempt from disclosure by one of the specified exemptions (or in the case of Environmental Information, exceptions) in the legislative provisions.
Even if an authority states that information is exempt, you have the right to ask them to think again and if they still refuse to give you the information you have the right to ask the relevant Information Commissioner to investigate and decide whether the public authority was right.
The Right to Know is an important right, it helps to hold those who make decisions and spend public money accountable for the decisions that they make and the money that they spend. It can aid the public’s understanding of the decision making process and can also help public authorities to see where they could be doing things better.
However, as it is an important right it must be used properly. Using it to annoy or upset individuals in a public authority, to carry on a personal dispute with a public authority or using it with no real purpose behind receiving the information isn’t helpful. It costs money to process a request and it does take public authority staff away from delivering their core function, which will have an impact on the public authority. Inappropriate use of the Act could lead to important information access rights being lost or reduced and that would be bad for everyone.
Over the years the way in which public services have been delivered is having an impact on the ability of the public to properly hold those responsible for making decisions and spending public money to account. This has resulted in an effective reduction in the information access rights that people have.
Freedom of Information is important. However, Government’s should be a lot more proactive in their release of information. There are many benefits to this, not least if it’s already in the public domain somebody doesn’t have to request it through information access rights.
I’m using International Right to Know day to write to my elected representatives reminding them of the importance of FOI, and to ask them to ensure that they press the Government to extend and protect FOI as well as pressing the Government to be more open and pro-active with information in the first place.
UK Information Commissioner – http://www.ico.org.uk
Scottish Information Commissioner – http://www.itspublicknowledge.info
WhatDoTheyKnow – http://www.whatdotheyknow.com
Freedom of Information Act 2000 – http://www.legislation.gov.uk/ukpga/2000/36/contents
Environmental Information Regulations 2004 – http://www.legislation.gov.uk/uksi/2004/3391/contents/made
Freedom of Information (Scotland) Act 2002 – http://www.legislation.gov.uk/asp/2002/13/contents
Environmental Information (Scotland) Regulations 2004 – http://www.legislation.gov.uk/ssi/2004/520/contents/made