Posted: May 23rd, 2016 2:02pm +00:00

The Ethical Use of the Freedom of Information Act

The Purpose of FOI

The Freedom of Information Act 2000 aims to provide transparency between the government and the public, thus promoting an open relationship that builds mutual trust. Public authorities are spending public money in the form of taxes and as such we have a vested interest in where and how these funds are spent. In addition, if this information is readily available, it makes public authorities more accountable for their actions.

A survey conducted on behalf of the Information Commissioner’s Office showed that 81% of public bodies’ questioned agreed that the Act had increased the public trust in their organisation.

Abuse of FOI requests

With the purpose of the FOI Act defined we can see the advantages that it provides. Anyone is now able to make a freedom of information request, an individual, an organisation or an employee of a public authority, and they do! The number of FOI requests received by public authorities has continued to rise so that between 2012 and 2014, some Councils had seen FOI requests increase by over 70%. So are all these requests valid?

Many public authorities are receiving requests that are designed to illicit commercially useful information but this was not the aim of the Act. Council officers are spending more time and valuable resource ‘“ at the taxpayer’s expense – looking for information to respond to businesses. The information obtained is then either sold on for marketing purposes or used to try and undercut the incumbent supplier.

Requests regularly received include when contracts are due expire, the value of the contract and who is responsible for the contract renewal. Luckily for all concerned this is improper and unethical use of the Act and is therefore exempt from needing to be answered.

Exercise Commercial Exemption

Using the following exemptions will be a start in stamping out the current abuse of the FOI system.

Section 43 of the Act sets out an exemption from the right to know if:

release of the information is likely to prejudice the commercial interests of any person. (A person may be an individual, a company, the public authority itself or any other legal entity.)
So requests relating to dates of contract expiry, values and contact information need not be supplied.

Data Protection Exemption

Section 40 of the Act sets out an exemption from the right to know based on Data Protection Act.

Requests for personnel names and contact details are exempt from Freedom of Information requests and therefore this information does not need to be shared.

Do not allow organisations to put huge pressures on public bodies that waste their resources. Public authorities are under huge amounts of pressure to deliver services all the while they are undergoing huge budget cuts. FOI requests need to stay focussed on their objective ‘“ to provide transparency between the government and the public.

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