The Freedom of Information Act is often associated with the national media getting hold of documents which are then used for a campaigning article. One of the better known of these possibly being the Daily Telegraph and its investigation of MPs’ expenses. But this Act is there for everyone for use at all levels of public life, including local authorities.
The Freedom of Information Act gives you the right to ask any public body for all the information they have on any subject you choose. Unless there’s a good reason, the organisation must provide the information within 20 working days.
Under this Act even a parish meeting is listed as being part of local government. This requires parish meetings to adopt and maintain a publication scheme setting out the types of information it will make available, how that information can be obtained and whether a charge will be made for that information.
The idea behind the scheme is to ensure that local government, including parish meetings, will be more proactive in publishing information and so develop a greater culture of openness and transparency. For example, instead of the minutes of meetings being “hidden” in a Minutes Book, they should be displayed on public noticeboards/published on websites/copies provided to individuals on request.
Some documents are excluded under this scheme – for example quotations and tenders.
Broughton residents can use the FOI Act not just to get information from the Parish Clerk but also from Ryedale District Council or North Yorkshire County Council – or lots of other public bodies, such as those in the list below outlined on the information website direct.gov.uk or look at the legislation here scrolling down to Part II headed Local Government.
• government departments and local assemblies
• local authorities and councils
• health trusts, hospitals and doctors’ surgeries
• schools, colleges and universities
• publicly funded museums
• the police
• non-departmental public bodies, committees and advisory bodies
Requests need to be made in writing (including email) and are usually met free of charge. There could be a request for the cost of photocopying and postage. However, where requests are “large” – either in preparation time or amount of photocopying required – then authorities can charge so it is best to enquire before making a request for a lot information.
You can ask that the information be given, for example, as paper or electronic copies of original documents, or you can ask for a summary of them. You can also ask just to inspect specific documents.
You can also ask for it in, Braille, audio format, large type or translated into another language.
If refused, you should ask for a review of this decision. If you disagree with the reviewed decision, you can appeal to the Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO). This is an independent body that promotes access to official information and protects personal information. If information has been wrongly withheld, the ICO can order it to be released.
If you disagree with the ICO’s decision, you can appeal to the Information Rights Tribunal. This is an independent body that can look into your case and the ICO’s decision.
As with many appeals, there are specific steps and deadlines to follow so it is important to get the correct procedure and take action immediately. If you disagree with the tribunal’s decision, there are still more options, but by now you will probably need professional advice.