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This is a short guide to the reasons that authorities can refuse requests for information under the Freedom of Information Act (FOI) and the Freedom of Information (Scotland) Act (FOISA). You can find information about what to do if your request has been refused, including advice on how to challenge some of the exemptions listed below on our ‘ Unhappy about the response you got?’ help page.

📖 Information that’s already public #

Things that are already published somewhere else e.g information that’s available to everyone online or that is in a book or newspaper. This includes information referred to in a public authority’s publication scheme. The publication scheme sets out a public authority’s commitment to make some types of information routinely available on request.

🕵️‍♀️ Information about the work of the Security Services #

Information relating to MI5, MI6, GCHQ and certain other bodies. The public interest test only needs to be carried out when someone has asked for very old records.

📄 Court records #

Any court records, for example records of what was said in court, or documents that have been submitted by parties involved in a court case. There are separate access regimes for getting access to these. Information relating to court building and facilities will not normally be covered by this exemption.

🗳️ Information covered by Parliamentary privilege #

Information relating to the proceedings of both Houses of Parliament. Parliamentary privilege helps to protect members of the House of Commons and the House of Lords, so they can do their jobs without any external interference. Ultimately, the Speaker of the House of Commons and the Lord Speaker decide what information is or isn’t privileged.

🤫 Information provided in confidence #

Information given to a public authority by another person or organisation in confidence. The information is only exempt if the provider of the information could bring a legal case against the public authority for breach of confidence and the case would be likely to succeed. There is a public interest defence to breach of confidence claims, so you can ask the authority to assess the public interest on that basis.

Information where disclosure is prohibited by law or would result in contempt of court. Contempt of court refers to a situation where someone’s actions risk unfairly influencing a court case. This could include disobeying a court order.

🗓️ Information that they say they are going to publish #

Information that an authority “plans” to publish in the future. The information that they are intending to publish has to be the same as the information that has been asked for. An authority that uses this exemption is not under any legal obligation to publish the information at a later date. For Scottish public authorities, the planned publication must be within 12 weeks of the request date. For all other public authorities in the UK, this exemption applies even if no publication date has been set.

🔬 Ongoing research #

Information which has been collected or prepared as part of a programme of research where disclosure would have a negative impact on institutions or people who are involved in the research. The exemption only applies if the research programme is still continuing and if there is an intention to publish the research.

💣 Information about national security #

Information relating to the security of the United Kingdom. This can include information relating to the security of Government buildings and the prevention of terrorism.

🪖 Information about defence #

Information relating to the defence of the UK and the Channel Islands and the effectiveness of the UK armed forces. This can also include information about the armed forces of the UK’s allies.

🌍 Information about international relations #

Communications with other countries, such as correspondence between diplomats, and other information that an authority thinks would harm relations between the UK and other countries if it was released.

🤝 Relations between the different governments within the UK #

Communications between the UK Government and the devolved administrations in Wales, Scotland, and Northern Ireland.

💰 Information that could harm the economy #

Information that an authority thinks would have a negative impact on the economic interests of the UK or any part of the UK if released. This covers information that would have a negative impact on the finances of the UK Government or any of the devolved administrations. This exemption can be used in cases where information could result in volatility in foreign exchange rates.

🚓 Information that could harm law enforcement activity #

Information that if released would have a negative impact on the work of the police and other public authorities whose job it is to enforce the law. This includes information about the detection and prevention of crime and also information about catching and prosecuting people who are suspected to have committed crimes. In addition, this also covers immigration controls, the collection of taxes, the prison system, and certain types of civil proceedings.

🔎 Criminal investigations #

Information about formal investigations carried out by a public authority to find out whether or not a person should be charged with a crime or whether or not a person is guilty of a crime. This can apply to information about investigations that have already finished as well as current investigations.

✅ Audit information #

Any information that could harm a public authority’s ability to carry out an effective audit of another public authority. This covers formal ‘value for money’ reviews as well as the auditing of accounts.

🗄️ Information about the inner workings of Government #

This covers information about the creation of government policies and correspondence sent to and from ministers. It applies to the UK Government and to the devolved administrations. The exemptions also cover information about the operation of private ministerial offices and advice from the government’s senior legal advisers who are known as the Law Officers.

👩‍⚕️ Health and safety information #

Information that, if released, could put someone’s health or safety at risk. This includes risks to both physical and mental health.

🐻 Environmental information #

You can have environmental information, but it needs to be handled under the Environmental Information Regulations (EIR) or the Environmental Information (Scotland) Regulations (EISR). This means it is exempt under FOI. This is good news for requesters because your rights under EIR and EISR are much stronger.

Information that is covered by legal privilege, such as legal advice and communications between an organization and its lawyers. This also covers certain types of internal discussion that are closely linked to legal proceedings. This exemption exists so that people are able to talk openly with their lawyers and receive appropriate legal advice.

🏭 Information that could harm commercial interests #

Information on trade secrets (such as secret recipes) or information that could harm the commercial interests of any company or other business. The authority must show that the release of the information would directly cause the harm being claimed.

👑 Communications with the Royal Family and awarding of honours #

Communications to and from the King, the Royal Family, and the Royal Household. This also covers information relating to the awarding of honours such as knighthoods and seats in the House of Lords (peerages).

🙋 Personal information #

Your own or someone else's personal information. The exemption only applies if the person can be identified, e.g., because the data includes the person’s name or an identifier such as National Insurance number or email address. This is only relevant for people who are still alive at the time the request is made. This exemption exists to protect people’s right to privacy. The law on how personal data can be used and stored in the UK is set out in a law called UK GDPR.

🙃 Information that could be prejudicial to the effective conduct of public affairs #

Information that the authority claims could undermine the principle of collective responsibility, discourage public officials from saying what they really think, or make it more difficult for the public authority to operate effectively. Outside of Scotland, an authority can’t use this exemption unless the qualified person says it is OK to do so. The qualified person is usually a minister or chief executive. If this is used against you, it’s quite hard to overturn.

Changes #

We keep these pages under review, and may make changes from time to time to ensure that they remain up-to-date and accurate. You can find a synopsis of changes we’ve made at our GitHub repository but if you have any questions, please do contact us.