The Financial Ombudsman Service (“FOS”), the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service (“UCAS”) and the Association of Chief Police Officers of England, Wales and Northern Ireland (“ACPO”) have been designated as public authorities and as a result must now comply with the Freedom of Information Act (“FOIA”).
Following a consultation with the Ministry of Justice, this change has been brought about on the basis that these organisations appear to the Secretary of State to exercise functions of a public nature. The application of the FOIA to these organisations is, however, limited to information that is held in relation to specified functions.
As a consequence of having been brought within the scope of the FOIA, FOS, UCAS and ACPO are required to release information in response to a valid FOIA request wherever possible, unless the release of such information falls within a relevant exception, or a qualified exemption applies. In addition, if information is to be withheld pursuant to an exemption, the public interest in withholding the information must outweigh the public interest in releasing the information.
Despite ever more information being made available to the public, Justice Minister Lord McNally has emphasised that personal data must still be adequately protected: “We must ensure that people’s privacy is preserved and their personal data is protected”, he said at a recent Westminster Legal Policy forum.
Individuals’ personal data also continues to be protected by the Data Protection Act (“DPA”) and various exemptions in the FOIA (Section 40 in particular). Individuals are able to make subject access requests under the DPA in relation to their own personal data held by public authorities but (subject to limited exceptions) third parties’ personal data shall not be disclosed unless it would be reasonable in all the circumstances to do so. Guidance produced by the Information Commissioner’s Office explains: “Generally this will mean balancing the legitimate interests of the public in having access to the information against the interests of the individual under the first principle and, in particular, considering whether it is unfair to release the information.”
The Government is also considering bringing a number of other bodies within the scope of the FOIA including the Local Government Association, examination boards and harbour authorities.