What is the purpose of the Freedom of Information Act?

The Freedom of Information Act 2000 is an Act of Parliament that creates a public "right of access" to information held by public authorities. The Government wished to create an open access policy whereby taxpayers can access relevant information. This open access is believed to help make public authorities accountable for their decisions and actions. The idea was first introduced in 1997 but did not come into full effect until 1 January 2005.

Why is Parliament discussing amendments to this Act?

The Freedom of Information (extension) Bill, if passed, will expand the definition of public authorities within the Act. This comes after consideration of how various bodies, who process information relevant to the public, can prevent public access to certain private information. The current legislation defines public authorities as ‘any government department other than (a) the Competition and Markets Authority and (b) the Office for Standards in Education, Children’s Services and Skills’. This definition will, therefore, be expanded to include the following bodies;

  • Housing associations
  • Local safeguarding children boards
  • Electoral registration officers
  • Returning officers for parliamentary elections
  • Housing Ombudsman

The extension will apply to contractors working with these public authorities.

What will change for you?

  • Housing associations have historically been able to keep their business matters and relevant information private as they fall out of the scope of a public authority. A fairly recent event that sparked a conversation for change in this area was the fire at Grenfell Tower. This unfortunate incident questioned the need for public access to information held by housing associations about fire safety procedures and building regulations. If the extension passes, for the purpose of this Act, housing associations will be considered a public authority. Therefore, the full extent of the Act will apply.
  • Contractors, who work with public authorities and housing associations ‘for the provision of services to or on behalf of the public authority’, can currently keep relevant business information privatised by not explicitly listing their work as being for the public benefit. In light of the Act’s purpose, all information held by the contractor, relating to the performance of the contract (between a public authority and a contractor/sub-contractor), shall be deemed to be held on behalf of the public authority and so disclosable by the contractor.
  • If the extension passes, the Information Commissioner’s powers will be extended to allow requests to both housing associations and their contractors.

How can you still protect your sensitive information?

Though there will be some big changes to this legislation if the bill is passed, that is not to say that all information the housing associations can currently withhold will become public. Only information that is specifically about ‘the provision of public services’ will be caught by the obligation to disclose. There are still grounds on which public authorities can withhold sensitive information from the public, the most relevant to housing associations are:

  • If it would cost too much or take too much staff time to deal with the request;
  • If the request is vexatious; or
  • If the request repeats a previous request from the same person.

So, at what stage is the Bill currently?

A date for the second reading debate of the bill within the House of Commons is due 22 March 2019. It is not known when the bill will come into force.

For more information

If you have any questions about the Freedom of Information (extension) Bill and how it may impact your information, please contact Emily Aldridge or Georgia Bradley - georgia.bradley@anthonycollins.com.