When introduced, the Freedom of Information Act 2001(FOIA) radically altered the way in which both the private and business communities were able to obtain access to official information held by public authorities. Now in its fourth year of operation, the Act is still as controversial as ever primarily in respect of its ability to strike a balance between allowing the 'public' access to information, which would otherwise remain secret, and doing this in a cost effective manner.
This short article looks at one particular aspect of the FOIA: Publication Schemes.
Section 19 states that public authorities are obliged to adopt a 'Publication Scheme' whereby certain types of information are to be make routinely available to the public. In contrast to the 'right to request information' which is also bestowed on the public under other sections of FOIA, Publication Schemes facilitate the proactive release of information.
At present there is a Model Publication Scheme in place which was, some years ago, approved by the Information Commissioner. This Model Publication Scheme basically provides guidance on the types of information which should be made routinely available. However, the current Model Publication Scheme expires on the 31st December 2008. Section 20 of FOIA provides that the Information Commissioner may approve new Model Publication Schemes and this has recently been done with the new model which will be effective from 1st January 2009.
It has been held that public authorities should adopt the model scheme in its entirety however there is no obligation placed upon each public authority to report to the Information Commissioner to either inform that they have adopted the scheme or obtain confirmation of compliance with the model scheme. It will simply be assumed that this has been done and carried out properly unless they hear otherwise. Having said this, it is likely that the Information Commissioner will take a 'light-touch' approach to dealing with non-compliance. Only if there is a blatant disregard and failure to engage with the model scheme is it likely that enforcement action will be taken.
Although further information can be sought from the Information Commissioner's website, broadly speaking the classification of information which must be published in this proactive manner under the model scheme is as follows:
- Information on who the relevant authority is and what it does.
- Information on what it spends and how it spends it.
- What the priorities are and how objectives are being achieved.
- How decisions are made.
- Policies and procedures.
- Lists and registers.
- Services offered.
Where possible the above information is to be contained within the authority's website. However, where this is not possible it should be made clear where the information can be found.
Finally, it should be noted that although FOIA imposes an obligation to make the routine information available, the obligation does not extend to making the information available for free. Although the purpose of the scheme is to make the routine information readily available at minimal inconvenience and cost to the public, charges can be made where they are justifiable and transparent. Examples of this may be where the authority has had to photocopy, post or package documents in order to comply with a request. However, any information which is made available online will be free of charge.
All that remains is to wait and see how, and if, the model scheme is adopted throughout in the manner in which it is intended. Having said this, it does appear as though the previous model scheme was implemented with minimal fuss and, no doubt, it is anticipated (or at least hoped) that this one will be the same.