By now, public authorities should be prepared to deal with requests for information.

As you may be aware, the final part of the Freedom of Information Act came into force on 1 January 2005 and individuals, companies and other organisations are now entitled to request information from public authorities.

More than 100,000 bodies are affected and expected to respond to requests from journalists, pressure groups, businesses and any other interested person. These requests may relate to sensitive information such as business records or even confidential information from agreements with contractors.

In most circumstances, public authorities will be obliged to provide information to the person requesting it within 20 working days. They will need to respond and disclose all the information that they hold unless they can show that it falls within one of the exemptions in the Act. Consequently, it is vital that public authorities have considered the relevance of these exemptions, particularly in relation to future and existing procurement arrangements.

In general, public authorities need to ensure that they have:

  • allocated sufficient resources to deal with requests
  • addressed how they will treat information received during a procurement

Failure to deal appropriately with information requests could lead to bad publicity, action by the Information Commissioner and even criminal conviction.

The following departments have provided general guidance:

The Department of Constitutional Affairs (particularly relevant to use of the exemptions):

The Information Commissioner’s Office:

The OGC has prepared draft model clauses relating to the Freedom of Information Act to be inserted into authority contracts:

The OGC has also made the following recommendations for action on procurement issues:

  • Inform potential bidders of the impact of the Act.
  • Incorporate terms into contractual arrangements about how confidential information is to be treated
  • Review existing confidentiality terms with a view to ensuring that they are appropriate and in line with the Act. If the volume of contracts makes a complete review impractical the OGC recommends focusing on important or controversial contracts
  • Consult with bidders and suppliers before disclosing information

If we can help further on the specific issues facing your business, please feel free to contact Hazel Grant, Ruth Boardman or Elizabeth Brownsdon at Bird & Bird, London.