Dr Gerard Panting discusses the Freedom of Information Act and how the availability of publicly accessible information impacts on GPs and the NHS


Although the Freedom of Information Act (FOI) received Royal Assent on 30 November 2000,1 it was implemented in stages and was not fully in force until January 2005.

It now falls to the Information Commissioner to oversee both the Data Protection Act 1998, which is all about protecting personal information, and the Freedom of Information Act 2000, designed to promote public access to official information held by public authorities.2

The FOI allows anybody to request access to recorded information, including emails, meeting minutes, research and reports held by public authorities in England, Wales and Northern Ireland (there is a separate Scottish Act). It is relevant to GPs as, unfortunately, along with Government departments, local authorities, the police, schools, colleges and universities, every individual NHS GP is a 'public authority' as defined in the Act.2

Public authorities

To recap, public authorities have two main responsibilities:

  • to produce a Publication Scheme – a guide to the information they hold that is publicly available
  • to respond to individual requests for information, either by referring the applicant to the Publication Scheme or by providing a specific response.1

Publication Schemes

A Publication Scheme is a complete guide to the information routinely published by each public authority. It describes the type of information that the authority makes publicly available,1 and provides a novel means of making information easily available to the public. Publication Schemes proactively promote the publication of information and develop a greater culture of openness.

One way of publishing the scheme is to make it available on the Internet. However, as not everyone has access to the Internet, alternative means must also be available to meet the requirements of the Act. The Department of Health will send single page print-outs as they appear on its website if someone puts a request in writing, but multiple copies or archived copies may incur a charge.

When it comes to individual requests for information, applicants have two rights:

  • to be told whether the information sought is held by the public authority
  • to receive that information in the manner requested where possible.

Applicants may also ask to inspect records. Responses should be given within 20 working days unless the relevant fee is not paid. The time limit can be extended, up to a maximum of 3 months, until payment is received.2 If the information requested is particularly complex, the Information Commissioner's Office allows up to 40 days for a response.

How has the FOI been received?

After the first year of operation of the FOI, the Information Commissioner's Office conducted some research3 into its working to determine:

  • whether the Act has led to a culture of increased openness and whether public authorities are publishing more information as a result
  • how much information is being released under the Act that would previously not have been available
  • public authorities' perception of the Act.

The 500 telephone interviews included a total of 107 NHS bodies (including Government departments, PCTs and NHS Trusts) of varying size, which presumably included a number of general practices. Unfortunately there are no findings within the report that are specific to NHS GPs, but in general 76% of those contacted said their organisation released more information now than they would have done before.3

The most common reason for turning down requests for information was that the information requested was personal and, therefore, protected by the Data Protection Act.

Most respondents (80%) were generally positive about the Act, despite some misgivings about the costs associated with compliance and about added strain on staff and resources.3 The report concluded that the Act had a greater impact on large public authorities (e.g. PCTs), and that compliance was relatively easy.

Impact on the NHS

But what specific effects has the Act had on the NHS?

On the Department of Health website1 there is a shortcuts menu on the home page to information available under the FOI. Here there is an outline of what is available, details of how to request information and how to complain, and a link to the Publication Scheme, containing the following classes of information:

  • parliamentary legislation
  • annual reports
  • key ministerial speeches
  • committees
  • public consultations
  • advice to the public
  • internal guidance and information
  • general information services
  • information for the NHS
  • research.

Each link leads to a wealth of further information, but anyone wanting answers to detailed questions requires tenacity and even then it is likely that a formal application will have to be made to the public authority that is holding the information, so it remains unclear whether the public is any wiser despite the availability of all this information.

Looking at NHS Hospital Trust and PCT websites reveals a similar pattern. Websites contain Publication Schemes with a long list of available topics (Box 1).

Box 1: A typical Publication Scheme from an NHS Hospital Trust website
Part One:
Part Two:
The classes of information we hold:
1. The NHS and how we fit
2. Who we are
3. Financial and funding information
4. Corporate information
5. Aims, targets and achievements
6. Our services
7. Reports and independent enquiries
8. Policies and procedures
9. Public involvement and consultation
10. Regular publications and information for the public
11. Complaints
12. Human resources
13. Communications with the press and medical releases
14. Environmental information
15.The Publication Scheme
Part Three:
Index to the Publication Scheme and useful resources


If you click on 'Reports and independent enquiries' (which should be inquiries) you can look at PDF files of the latest Commission for Health Improvement (CHI) reports on the Trust; 'Complaints' will lead you to a brief description of who to complain to and will inform you that quarterly reports on complaints are made to the Trust board, but the site is unlikely to provide any details on the Trust's clinical record or how good it is at handling complaints.

PCT sites follow the same format, including the typographical error, and are again rather coy about the sort of details that you might want to know regarding complaints. Of course this information is available if you ask for it, but then you have got into correspondence with the authority – this can often be time consuming and frustrating for everyone involved.

At practice level there appears to be less information readily to hand. For example, in St Albans, Hertfordshire, there are nine GP practices listed on the local PCT website,4 and four of these have websites of their own, but only one of these websites has anything to say about the Freedom of Information Act.


Although the research from the Information Commissioner's Office failed to separate out the experience of the wide range of public authorities surveyed, anecdotal evidence suggests that GP practices are rarely approached for information under the Act; however, it may not stay that way.

When the Data Protection Act was first introduced there were very few requests for information, but now some bodies, e.g. the GMC, regularly receive applications for access to personal data and so have to devote significant resources to compliance.5


Guidelines in Practice, July 2006, Volume 9(7)
© 2006 MGP Ltd
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  1. www.dh.gov.uk
  2. www.ico.gov.uk
  3. Information Commissioner's Office. Freedom of Information: One Year On. Cheshire: Information Commissioner's Office, 2006.
  4. www.stalbansharppct.nhs.uk
  5. www.gmc-uk.org