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The public asked for the release of more information from public bodies at the start of this year than at any time since the immediate aftermath of the enactment of freedom of information (FOI) laws, the government has said.

The number of FOI requests filed between 1 January and 31 March this year was the largest number received by public bodies in a single quarterly period since the first three months of 2005 when Freedom of Information legislation came into effect, the Ministry of Justice (MoJ) said in a report.

"Across all monitored bodies ... a total of 12,128 requests were reported," the MoJ said in its report (33-page/265KB PDF).

"This constitutes the highest quarterly total number of requests received by monitored bodies since the very first quarter of the Act's implementation [between January and March in] 2005," the report said.

The Freedom of Information Act and the Freedom of Information (Scotland) Act came into full force on 1 January 2005, giving individuals the right for the first time to see information held by government departments and public bodies.

The laws give individuals the right to access information held by the public authority.

Under the FOI laws, anyone of any nationality living anywhere in the world can make a written request for information and expect a response within 20 working days. The public authority will be obliged to meet that request unless exemptions apply or unless meeting it will be too costly or difficult.

The MoJ, which is responsible for gathering statistics from public organisations on the number of FOI requests, said the total requests made between January and the end of March rose 8 per cent on the number filed during the corresponding months last year.

The Ministry of Defence (MoD) received the highest number of FOI requests made to government departments during the period, the MoJ said. The other 21 government bodies all received requests which, along with the number filed to the MoD, totalled 7,783 information requests, the MoJ said.

A further 22 public bodies also reported a total of 4,345 FOI requests in the first three months of the year, the MoJ said. The Health and Safety Executive received 1,757 requests, which makes it the only organisation to have received more than 1,000 FOI requests in every quarter since the Act was implemented, the MoJ said.

A quarter of all information requests between January and the end of March were not granted, with a further 14 per cent partially withheld, the MoJ said.

In January, the government announced plans to increase the number of organisations that would have to respond to FOI requests.

Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg said that school trusts, the financial ombudsman, the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA), the Association of Chief Police Officers (ACPO) and the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service (UCAS) should be among the organisations that should open themselves up to public scrutiny.

The extension of FOI laws has been debated in recent years, with the previous Labour government ruling that some bodies should be brought within its reach, but that companies should not, even when they perform the functions of a public body.

The Scottish government has said that it wants the Freedom of Information (Scotland) Act to cover companies that carry out the functions of public bodies, including trusts that operate local authority, leisure or culture facilities or companies which run prisons and prison escort services.

Copyright © 2011, OUT-LAW.com

OUT-LAW.COM is part of international law firm Pinsent Masons.

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