Although the dust seems to have settled on the issue of MP’s expenses, the recent newspaper revelations were made possible because of Tony Blair’s election manifesto promise to make public authorities more transparent and accountable.
One of the results of this promise, the Freedom of Information Act 2000 (FOIA), gives anyone (anywhere in the world) the right to request information from a public authority, which includes all central and local government, the NHS, police and schools.
The use of the right to request information costs nothing (except that the request must be made in writing) and might result in the release of useful and valuable information, for example, upcoming business opportunities and tenders.
Clearly, the FOIA presents a risk as well as an opportunity to the private sector, as any information held by a public authority may be disclosed to others if requested. A public authority has an obligation to disclose information requested unless there is a relevant exemption. Having said this, the exemptions are narrow and the overriding principle is that the public authority must disclose. In practice this means that you should be careful which information you provide to public authorities and, if it is confidential, you should take steps to ensure that the public authority is aware of its confidential nature. Whilst this will not guarantee that your information will not be disclosed, it will at least raise the question in the public authority’s mind if asked to disclose it.