Five important decisions from ten years of the Freedom of Information Act

By Christopher Graham, Information Commissioner

foiaNew Year’s Day sees the tenth anniversary of the coming into effect of the Freedom of Information Act. Under the Act (FOIA) which had been passed in 2000, on 1 January 2005, citizens were at long last able to request access to official information from UK-wide public authorities and those throughout England, Wales and Northern Ireland. On the same day, the Freedom of Information (Scotland) Act introduced similar rights in respect of the devolved authorities in Scotland.

Ten years on, it’s a good time to consider some of the key cases in the law’s evolution and what they tell us about how far we’ve come along the transparency road.

Picking just five cases out of the more 7,000 ICO decision notices was an interesting process. Some of the decisions would be unremarkable if made today, but that’s exactly why they were so important: they marked changes in approach that have increased transparency for good.

They also highlight an interesting point about the impact of the Act over time. As we ruled that information should be released, so public authorities started to publish such information proactively. That’s clearly a positive result. Our ICO mission statement includes ‘promoting openness by public bodies’, and ten years of the FOIA has shown us how proactive transparency serves the public better than relying on the request process on its own.

So here’s our list of five key FOIA landmarks. I’m sure there’ll be a few differing views on what should be highlighted, so feel free to add your own in the comments section at the bottom of the page.

foi-dn-1The ICO ruling that showed the public their right to know how money is spent on senior public servants

In June 2011, we ruled that the salaries of 24 public sector workers earning over £150,000 should be released. This followed an FOI request to the Cabinet Office. Our view was that it was in the public interest to disclose the figures due to the high level of public debate surrounding the austerity measures facing the public sector. This overrode the argument that this was purely personal information.

Not only did the decision set the precedent for public authorities proactively publishing the salaries of senior officials, but it also demonstrated two of the key purposes of FOIA: letting the public know how money was being spent in their name and enhancing the accountability of senior officials.

It was a similar story with the MPs expenses scandal in 2009. That began with a number of FOI requests from journalists and others, made to the House of Commons authorities who refused to give out more information than they had already published. The ICO ordered partial disclosure and a tribunal ordered more disclosure, although in the end even more details were leaked. This case led to a complete overhaul of the Westminster expenses system, with a high degree of transparency now built in.

foi-dn-2The case that showed that sunlight really is the best disinfectant

US Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis could not have imagined a more literal example when, referring to US transparency laws, he spoke of the cleansing sunlight of freedom of information.

In 2005, the ICO ruled against Bridgend Council, who had refused to release an inspection report about food hygiene standards for a local hotel, arguing that this would make it harder to work with local businesses.

The decision brought consistency across local councils (some were already disclosing this kind of information), and set the scene for all councils to publish food hygiene standards which are now regularly looked at by customers. Knowing that the inspection results will be published makes hygiene in restaurants more important than ever, and inspection scores are now routinely displayed in restaurant windows.

foi-dn-3The case that showed that FOIA continues to have an everyday benefit for consumers

The application of FOIA continues to evolve. Within the last month we’ve ordered that private landlords convicted of safety breaches should be named publicly, following a freedom of information request to the Ministry of Justice. This will create a new national database and will mean tenants are better aware of decisions taken to protect them. The protection afforded by the law is not enough if the public cannot be made aware of its impact. It’s another example of the FOIA having an everyday benefit for consumers.

foi-dn-4The case that showed the link to Open Data

A freedom of information request made by the BBC in the summer of 2008 led to a list of car MOT failure rates being released in 2010. We overturned a decision of the Vehicle and Operator Services Agency, which was worried that releasing the information would give some manufacturers a competitive edge.

Today the figures are released every year giving consumers important information to consider when buying a car. The decision not only helped to better inform consumer choice, but it led the way for information ordered to be released under FOIA to be routinely disclosed as a dataset. That progressive move was underlined in September 2013, when an amendment to the law brought in new legal requirements to publish updated versions of datasets which have been released under FOIA and to allow them to be reused.

foi-dn-5And finally… A case that showed that the Act does give proper protection to the inner workings of government

Some people fret that FOI has made decision making in government more difficult because people won’t say what they really think. But there are legitimate exemptions from disclosure under the Act which the record shows the ICO respects.

Take the case of the Olympics bid. Discussions at a Cabinet meeting back in 2003 about the potential staging of the Olympics were the subject of an FOI request which led to a complaint to the ICO. The Cabinet Office had turned down the request, as it felt that there should be a ‘safe space’ for developing government policy and ministerial communications. We agreed, despite the public’s likely interest in what was said at the meeting. It remains important for ministers to be able to hold discussions in private and it’s important to remember that just because information would be of interest to the public, doesn’t mean that disclosing it is necessarily in the public interest.

So that’s the Freedom of Information Act – the first decade. Here’s to a future of openness and transparency by public authorities, building on the sound foundations of the first ten years.

Christopher GrahamChristopher Graham, Information Commissioner, has a range of responsibilities under the Freedom of Information Act 2000, the Data Protection Act 1998 and related laws.

Last updated 31/12/2014 16:00

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2 Responses to Five important decisions from ten years of the Freedom of Information Act

  1. Pingback: Ten years of FOI – a personal reflection | FOIMan

  2. Graham T says:

    Everything mentioned above is obviously good. Openness is good. However, having taken over FOI at my NHS Trust 2 years ago I can say that FOI is not regarded as generally good by the Trust or indeed by myself. We take it seriously and answer impartially and have achieved a 99.6% response rate within 20 days. FOI can occasionnally highlight areas within the Trust where perhaps the record keeping could be improved but these are few and far between. The FOIs that cause the most pain are the commercial ones, companies chasing business and the odd requester who it seems to be a bit of a hobby for. 525 FOIs last calendar year with a very large portion being commercial. I keep meaning to do an exercise on how much time/money is spent on answering FOIs. Journanlists/students quite often send out requests to 160 plus Trusts. 160 Trusts multiplied by however many hours it takes to answer a request and the hourly rate. The amount is colossal. I know it would be difficult to legislate against time-wasters and commercial requesters but it is very painful at times chasing people for an answer and pulling them away from there day jobs, having to get directors to chase their staff to answer questions.

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