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Frequently Asked Questions

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In order to help you understand the Freedom of Information Act 2000 (FOIA) and the obligations imposed on the Council please find below a selection of our most frequently asked questions:

What is the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) 2000?

From 1 January 2005, under FOIA, any individual, organisation or company can make a request for information to Cumbria County Council and will have the right to be informed in writing as to whether the council holds the requested information and to have that information supplied within 20 working days. The Council is already open with its information and you may be able to find the information you need yourself through the council’s Publication Scheme, e- library or elsewhere on the Council's website (www.cumbria.gov.uk).



What is the purpose of the Act?

The purpose of FOIA is to provide all citizens with a right to access to information subject only to certain exemptions. It was introduced to promote greater openness and accountability across the public sector. Along with the Human Rights Act 1998, Data Protection Act 1998, and Environmental Information Regulations 2004, FOIA aims to build a culture of rights and responsibilities for citizens and contribute to the delivery of better public services.



Is all the information that the Council has covered by FOIA?

Some information is exempt from FOIA because it is covered by the rules of the Data Protection Act 1998 in the case of personal information, or by the Environmental Information Regulations 2004 in the case of information relating to the environment. Everything else is covered by the Freedom of Information Act 2000.



What information is covered by FOIA?

This can include information held within minutes of meetings, correspondence, reports, and notes. Certain documents that the Council holds will have a ‘retention period’ attached to them. This means that they have to be kept for a certain length of time before the Council can dispose of them. If a document has already been disposed of according to the retention rules it may not be possible to provide the information. The Council only has to provide existing recorded information.



What type of information is exempt?

There are 23 exemptions contained within FOIA – some are absolute and others are qualified. Some information is exempt, for example, because it is personal information and is subject to the Data Protection Act 1998 (s.40), or it is environmental information and falls under the Environmental Information Regulations 2004 (s.39). Some information may be exempt because it is being used in a criminal enquiry.  The exemptions ensure that a proper balance is achieved between the right to know, the right to personal privacy and the delivery of effective government. The Council will need to consider the content of the information, the effect that disclosure would have the source of information and the purpose for which the information was recorded. If information is going to be withheld, the Council must tell you which specific exemptions apply and the reasons for this decision. Many other exemptions such as those around commercial interests or legal advice given to councillors are subject to a further test known as the "public interest test."



What is the public interest test?

The "public interest test" means that the Council must ask itself a number of questions before making the final decision on whether information is exempt under one of the qualified exemptions. For example the questions may be: Is disclosure likely to increase access to information? Is disclosure likely to improve the accountability and transparency of the Council in the use of public funds and in obtaining value for money? Is disclosure likely to bring to light information affecting public safety?



How long does the Council have to respond to my request?

The Council has 20 working days from receiving a request for information to respond to it. If more detail is required from the requester, or a fee needs to be paid in advance, or an exemption is sought then the Council may extend the 20 working days limit.



Who deals with complaints and how are they dealt with?

Complaints and appeals are dealt with initially by the Council in a fair and impartial way via the Comments, Compliments and Complaints system. A panel of officers who were not involved in the original decision review all the information and the original decision. If the requester is still not satisfied they have the right to appeal the Information Commissioner for a review of the Council's decision.



What is the Publication Scheme?

One of the requirements of FOIA is for each public authority to adopt and maintain a ‘Publication Scheme’. This scheme sets out the classes of information routinely published by a public authority, how the information can be obtained and details of any charges made for the information.



What is the role of the Information Commissioner?

The Information Commissioner's role is to promote public access to official information and protect your personal information. The Information Commissioner promotes good practice on providing access to information, conducts reviews of decisions made by public authorities (if a complaint or appeal is received), and is empowered to enforce disclosure of previously exempt information.