Note: This guide is an overview of some of the main provisions of the Act and should not be regarded as a legal interpretation.
What does the Freedom of Information Act do?
The Freedom of Information (FOI) Act 2000 gives everyone the right to request information from public authorities. The FOI Act means that you have a right of access to recorded information to help you to understand better how this Department works, how we spend public money, and how and why we make our decisions.
You can also get information under:
Data Protection legislation1 which, amongst other things, gives individuals access to their own personal information.
The Environmental Information Regulations 2004 (EIRs) which gives people access to environmental information. EIRs apply to “environmental information” held by organisations that perform functions of a public nature.
How do I get information about the Department for Communities under the FOI Act?
If you have access to the Internet you can get information on the Departmental website or visit nidirect for further information on accessing the websites of all Northern Ireland Government Departments. Alternatively you can write to us at: Information Management Branch, Department for Communities, Level 5, Nine Lanyon Place, BELFAST, BT1 3LP or by email to firstname.lastname@example.org.
What happens next - how will my request be processed?
If the information you request is already reasonably accessible in the public domain (e.g. on the department’s or other website) then we will direct you to where you can obtain the information. Similarly, if your request does not relate to the Department for Communities then we will endeavour to provide you with the contact details of other public authorities who may be able to help you. We will not transfer your request to other authorities without contacting you beforehand.
If your request relates to un-published information held by the Department for Communities then we will forward it onto our relevant business area officials who will respond to you.
How long does it take to get information?
The legislation requires us to respond to your request for information as soon as possible after it is received, and not later than 20 days after the date of receipt. However, that time can be extended where a “qualified” exemption applies and we need to consider the public interest.
Sometimes we might need to contact you in order to clarify exactly what information you are interested in. It will help us to process your request more quickly if you can be as specific as possible about what information it is you want.
In all cases you will be kept informed if there is a delay.
Is there a cost for getting information?
This depends on a number of factors including the volume of information requested. In the majority of cases there will not be a charge. Responses to enquiries that cost the department less than £600 to process will be provided free of charge.
However, there may be instances where a request for information is so complex or voluminous that it would exceed the cost threshold. In these circumstances you will be informed of the options open to you, such as refining your question so that it can be dealt with without charge.
The department reserves the right to charge for the production of multiple copies of documents, which are otherwise free of charge. The department also reserves the right to review its position on charging.
The department has the right to refuse to respond to a request that is estimated to cost more than £600 to process.
What happens if the information I want is not available?
The FOI Act does not require the Department to create or gather information that is not already held. However, we are required to assist you with your request. We will contact you and tell you what information we do hold that might help to answer your query or suggest another public authority who may hold the information you are looking for.
Is any information exempt?
Whilst the FOI Act is designed to provide access to more information than was previously the case, some information may be deemed exempt from disclosure. For example, information may be withheld if its release would compromise the health and safety of staff, where confidential information or personal data about others is included or for reasons of security.
Where this occurs, the material will clearly show where information has been withheld and explain which exemption(s) have been applied, and why. It should also be noted that information is exempt from the Act if it is reasonably available to the applicant by other means or if it is intended for future publication.
The legislation allows for the application of a number of exemptions and exceptions to the general public right to access information. Only information subject to these exemptions may be withheld from the public. Whenever an exemption is engaged, the department will explain the reasons behind withholding the information.
The FOI Act provides for both absolute and qualified exemptions. Where information is absolutely exempt there is no obligation under the Act to provide the requested information.
Most exemptions under the Act are qualified and are subject to a public interest test. As the FOI Act strikes the balance between different public interests, a decision to withhold or release information will itself require a careful balancing act.
Where information requested falls within the terms of a qualified exemption the relevant staff will assess, on a case to case basis, whether the public interest lies in disclosing the information to the applicant or withholding the information.
Detailed information on exemptions and the public interest test can be found in the Information Commissioner’s Office website.
What if I am refused information?
In some cases we will not be able to answer all or part of your request because the Department for Communities does not hold the information.
In most cases information that the Department for Communities holds can be released but the FOI Act does include a number of exemptions covering areas such as Formulation of Government Policy and information provided in confidence. If the Department for Communities decides to apply an exemption you will be kept informed.
We will tell you if information is being withheld and why.
Can I complain if I am unhappy with the Department’s handling of my request?
You have the right to an internal review if we do not deal with your request for information within the timescales set by the legislation (normally not later than 20 working days after the date your request is received) or if you are dissatisfied with our response to your request for information. We will tell you how to request an internal review.
If you are not happy with our response, tell us why you believe that we are wrongly withholding information from you.
A request for internal review must be received within 2 calendar months of the date of the department’s response and will be investigated by the Internal Review Officer. The department will carry out an Internal Review within 20 working days (40 working days for EIR) and respond advising you of the outcome.
If you are still not satisfied with how we have handled your request after the internal review you can request a review by the Information Commissioner (see details below). The Commissioner will normally expect an internal review to have been carried out prior to appeal.
What can I do with the information provided?
The supply of information under the Freedom of Information Act does not give the recipient or organisation that receives it the automatic right to re-use it in any way that would infringe copyright. This includes, for example, making multiple copies, publishing and issuing copies to the public.
Any information supplied to you continues to be protected by copyright. You are free to use it for your own purposes, including for private study and non-commercial research, and for any other purpose authorised by an exception in current copyright law. Documents (except photographs) can be also used in the UK without requiring permission for the purposes of news reporting. Any other re-use, for example commercial publication, would require the permission of the copyright holder.
Most documents produced by the Department for Communities will be protected by Crown Copyright. Most Crown copyright information can be re-used under the Open Government Licence. For information about the OGL and about re-using Crown Copyright information please see The National Archives website.
Copyright in other documents may rest with a third party. For information about obtaining permission from a third party see the Intellectual Property Office’s website.
Consultation with third parties
The Department may need to consult third parties (including another public authority) in order to reach a decision on whether we can release information you have requested.
Consulting third parties may help identify relevant exemptions or public interest factors or enable the department to give you more context or explanatory material, or include copyright restrictions.
During the consultation process the identity of the requester will not be disclosed to the third party.
Where can I get more information about the FOI Act?
You can get more information about FOI from the Office of the Information Commissioner. The Commissioner’s details are:The Information Commissioner,
Helpline: 0303 123 1113
There is also an Assistant Information Commissioner for Northern Ireland based at:
14 Cromac Place,
Gasworks Business Park,
Belfast, BT7 2JB
1 Data Protection Legislation: (i) the UKGDPR, the Law Enforcement Directive (LED) and any applicable national implementing Laws as amended from time to time (ii) the Data Protection Act 2018 (DPA 2018) to the extent that it relates to processing of personal data and privacy; (iii) all applicable Law about the processing of personal data and privacy.