What is Freedom of Information (FOI) and what does it mean in practice?
The FOI (Scotland) Act was passed by the Scottish Parliament in 2002, with the main provisions of the Act coming into force on 1 January 2005. This Act entitles any person requesting information from a Scottish public authority that holds it, to be given it.
This means that if you make a request to an authority for information they are holding from 1 January 2005 they are required to provide you with access to that information. You may also express a preference for the format in which the information is provided - e.g. electronic or paper.
Highlands and Islands Enterprise (HIE) will aim to process your request for information as soon as possible and, in any event, within the 20-day time limit for compliance. There may be some instances where information requested is subject to an exemption from disclosure. Where this is the case, you will be informed of that fact and of your rights to a review of the request - again within the 20 day time limit. Back to top.
Haven't I always been able to request information?
People have always been able to ask for information, and HIE has operated an openness policy since the mid-1990s. The difference from 1 January 2005 is that such requests will carry the force of law, with the legislation governing the response you receive and when you are entitled to access the information requested. This is likely to result in a change in the way in which most public sector organisations make information generally available, and also, in some circumstances, to the way in which some requests for information are handled. Back to top.
Who will make sure public bodies comply with the Act?
Responsibility for enforcing the new right of access to public information falls to the Scottish Information Commissioner (SIC). Further information about the SIC and his office can be found at http://www.itspublicknowledge.info/ Back to top.
Won't all sensitive and therefore interesting information be covered by an exemption?
HIE will use exemptions provided by the Act sparingly, whenever there are genuine reasons for doing so, as defined by the Act itself. However, these exemptions will not apply to all of our information and it is likely that FOI will result in information being placed in the public domain that would previously have remained private. The policy governing the use of exemptions across the organisation will be available in our publication scheme. Back to top.
HIE has already started making more information accessible by placing classes of information that had not been previously accessible into its publication schemes. The organisation will continually review what information is of greatest interest to the public with a view to making that information more widely available wherever possible. If you have any feedback or comments about information you would like to see HIE make available, please use the feedback form here. Back to top.
Won't all sensitive and therefore interesting information be too expensive to access?
HIE is able to charge for information provided in response to a request and will have a policy to do so, but this has to be in accordance with the code of practice associated with Section 60 of the Act. This code sets the minimum threshold at which charging can start, the maximum hourly rate that can be charged for administration costs and the percentage of costs that can be passed on to the applicant once the charging threshold has been met. Back to top.
Can I find out how much money HIE gave to a business I am not involved with and what they have spent it on?
The majority of grants approved by the organisation are already published monthly, providing publishing this information would not contravene other legislation or the information is not subject to one of the exemptions under FOI.
HIE does, however, recognise the need to build trust with clients in order to carry out its remit as a development agency, and therefore will respect clients' rights to confidentiality where these apply. Some information held regarding services provided by or on behalf of HIE is likely to remain exempt. Naturally, HIE will fulfil its legal obligation in assessing any public interest test that may be required. Back to top.
How do I know what information you hold and therefore what I can ask for?
Providing you know the subject of what you are looking for, HIE will advise and assist you to find the information you are able to access. There is a general duty of advising and assisting applicants under the Act.
You should note that HIE is not likely to process unreasonably vague requests, such as those that start with "Give me everything you hold on....", as in most cases there will probably be insufficient information in these requests to allow us to locate the specific information you are looking for. HIE will, of course, work with you to find information that will be of most use. These requests may also result in the maximum cost threshold being reached. Where the maximum cost threshold is met (£600), HIE is not required by the legislation to process the request.
Where the maximum threshold is not met, HIE will attempt to process your request, although it is likely that you will be asked for further clarification in order to locate some of the material. Back to top.
How do I know if you have really provided everything you hold on a particular issue?
If information requested is held by the organisation but is not made available in response to a request you should be informed of the fact the information is held, and the reason why it is exempt from disclosure. However, if you are at all dissatisfied by the way in which your request for information was dealt with, including if you believe certain information has been withheld from you which has not been accounted for, you have the right to request a review. The review is conducted by HIE and will either disclose any further information or uphold decisions made when processing the original request. If you remain dissatisfied, you may then complain to the Scottish Information Commissioner. His contact details can be found in the explanation on 'how to request a review'. Back to top.
Does FOI allow me to find out everything you are holding about me?
No, however you are already able to obtain personal information that the organisaion is holding about you using a Subject Access Request (SAR) under the Data Protection Act (1998). Further information about making a SAR can be found in the HIE publication scheme. Back to top.
Does FOI allow me to complain about decisions that have been made historically?
No, FOI only provides access to information. It does not provide any retrospective rights that may be related to the content of that information. Back to top.
As a business, should I be concerned about providing information which I consider to be commercially confidential to you?
As a public sector organisation, HIE must be transparent and accountable to the public it serves and has operated an Accountability Through Openness policy for many years to disclose information about the services we provide.
Since 1 January 2005, requests for information held by HIE are governed by FOI legislation. HIE will endeavour to process all requests for information in an open and transparent manner, always balancing public interest with the need to foster trust with customers in order to fulfil its remit. While it is vital that HIE publicly demonstrates value for money for the services it offers across the organisation, it will seek to protect information where there is an appropriate and genuine need. This will help to ensure HIE can continue to deliver the services it provides as a development agency. FOI provides public authorities with exemptions from disclosure for this purpose and further information on HIE's exemption policy can be found in the organisation's publication scheme. Back to top.