Freedom of information and data protection

The Freedom of Information Act (FOI) gives you the right to ask any public sector organisation for all the recorded information they have on any subject. Anyone can request information, there is no restriction on your age or background. You can also ask for information about yourself, this is handled under the Data Protection Act.

Organisations you can request information from

You can request information from publicly funded organisations that work for the welfare of the whole population, for example:

  • government departments
  • local councils
  • schools, colleges and universities
  • health trusts, hospitals and doctors’ surgeries
  • publicly funded museums
  • the police
  • non-departmental public bodies, committees and advisory bodies

Making an FOI request

You can contact an organisation directly by letter or email to make a freedom of information request. When making your request, you should include:

  • your name
  • an address where you can be contacted
  • a detailed description of the recorded information you want
  • the format you want the information in

You can ask for the information in a number of different formats. This could be paper or electronic copies of any original documents, or alternative formats like large print, audio format or Braille.

Depending on the nature of your request, you can ask for all the information or just a summary.

If you plan to reproduce the information you receive, make sure you check the copyright status of it first.

Most requests are free but you might be asked to pay a small amount for photocopies or postage. You will be told by the organisation if you have to pay anything.

You should receive the information within 20 working days. If the organisation needs more time, they will contact you and tell you when you can expect the information.

Find out more about accessing information from a public body.

If your request is turned down

Some sensitive information might not be available to members of the public. If this is the case, the organisation must tell you why they have withheld some or all of the information you requested.

An organisation can turn down your request if they think it will cost them more than £450.00 (£600.00 for a central government organisation) to deal with your request.

They might then ask you to be more specific so they can provide the information you’re looking for.

If an organisation doesn’t provide you with the information you request, you should first contact them and ask them to review their decision.

If you are still not satisfied, you can complain to the Information Commissioner’s Office.

Data protection

The Data Protection Act controls how your personal information is used by organisations, businesses or the government. Everyone who collects data has to follow strict rules called ‘data protection principles’. They must make sure the information is:

  • used fairly and lawfully
  • used for limited, specifically stated purposes
  • used in a way that is adequate, relevant and not excessive
  • accurate
  • kept for no longer than is absolutely necessary
  • kept safe and secure
  • not transferred outside the UK without adequate protection

There is stronger legal protection for more sensitive information, such as:

  • ethnic background
  • political opinions
  • religious beliefs
  • health
  • sexual health
  • criminal records

Find out what data an organisation has about you

The Data Protection Act gives you the right to find out what information the government and other organisations stores about you.

You can write to the organisation and ask for a copy of the information they hold about you. If you do not know who in the organisation to write to, address your letter to the company secretary.

The organisation is legally required to provide you with a copy of the information they hold about you - if you request it.

Some organisations may charge you for providing the information. The cost is usually no more than £10 but it can be more if there is a lot of information or if it is held in manual (paper) records.

Find out how to access your personal information.

Withheld information

There are some situations when organisations are allowed to withhold information, for example if the information is about:

  • the prevention, detection or investigation of a crime
  • national security or the armed forces
  • the assessment or collection of tax
  • judicial or ministerial appointments

An organisation doesn’t have to say why they are withholding information.

Worried about your data

If you think your data has been misused or that the organisation holding it hasn’t kept it secure, you should contact them and tell them.

If you are unhappy with their response or if you need any advice you should contact the Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO).

The ICO can investigate your claim and take action against anyone who has misused personal data. You can also visit their website for information on how to make a data protection complaint.

The Information Commissioner's Office (ICO)

The Information Commissioner's Office (ICO) can help you understand what the Data Protection Act, Freedom of Information Act and related issues mean to you. It can advise you on how to protect your personal information and how to gain access to official records.

If you think an organisation has failed to abide by the legislation the ICO regulates, you may be able to get help. You can find out how to make a complaint and more  on the ICO website.

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