The Department of Health is fully committed to compliance with the requirements of the Freedom of Information Act 2000 (the Act). The aim of the Act is to promote a culture of greater openness and accountability between the Department and the public and to facilitate better understanding of how we carry out our duties, why we make the decisions we do and how public money is spent.

Policy Statement

The Act gives members of the public the right to access information held by the Department, subject to some exemptions.  The Department supports this culture of openness and will ensure compliance with the Act by:

  • putting in place appropriate procedures and practices
  • using the Department’s publication scheme to make as much information as possible available
  • regularly reviewing the publication scheme to ensure that it is maintained and kept up to date
  • responding to written requests within the 20 working day deadline
  • ensuring that all staff are aware of their responsibilities and that relevant training is provided
  • protecting personal information, by disclosing only that information which it is lawful to do so, in accordance with the provisions of the Data Protection Act 1998

Implementation

In the Department, responsibility for ensuring compliance with the Act rests with the Departmental Information Manager who works within the Information Management Branch.

The Departmental Information Manager will provide advice and assistance to Local Information Managers in dealing with requests for information.

The Departmental Information Manager will also have overall responsibility for:

  • enabling the provision of Freedom of Information (FOI) training for staff within the Department
  • the development and maintenance of the Department’s FOI Procedures Manual
  • checks to ensure adherence with the Act throughout the Department

Local Information Managers have been appointed in all Directorates and will be responsible for ensuring compliance with the Act and this policy within their business areas. 

They will also provide advice to staff in their Directorates to ensure that requests received are dealt with and responded to in accordance with the Act.

Staff Responsibilities 

All staff have responsibilities under the Act.  They must ensure that any request for information they receive is handled in compliance with this policy and in accordance with the Department’s FOI Procedures Manual.  In general staff are responsible for:

  • familiarising themselves with this policy and the FOI Procedures Manual
  • identifying FOI requests quickly and ensuring they receive prompt attention;
  • responding to all requests for information promptly and within 20 working days
  • disclosing information, where possible, and only withholding certain information in accordance with the exemptions laid down in the Act;
  • advising members of the public who wish to make a request for information
  • working with any partners and contractors to ensure that the Department can meet its FOI obligations, including the disclosure of any information they hold on the Department’s behalf
  • consulting with third parties before disclosing information that could affect their rights and interests.  However, as in accordance with the Act, the final decision on disclosure will rest with the Department
  • recording all FOI requests and responses and monitoring their own performance in handling requests and complaints
  • contacting their Local Information Manager when advice and assistance is required
  • providing input to the publication scheme as required and ensuring that the information published on the Internet is kept up-to-date and accurate
  • adhering to the Lord Chancellor’s Code of Practice on the Management of Records (Section 46 Code) and Departmental records management policies and procedures

Publication Scheme

To comply with the Act, the Department has a Publication Scheme in place which sets out:

  • the classes of information available
  • whether the information is available free of charge or if a payment is required
  • guidance on how information can be obtained

The aim of the scheme is to make information routinely available to the public.   A copy of the publication scheme may be obtained from the         Departmental Information Manager       

Information Management Branch shall ensure that the publication scheme is reviewed and maintained.

Requests for Information

The Act gives individuals requesting information two rights:

  • the right to be informed whether the Department holds certain information
  • the right to have that information communicated to them

A request for information must be in writing, which can include email.

Requests can be met in a variety of ways such as providing a copy of the original document either electronically or in hard copy, providing a summary of the information, or by arranging for the applicant to visit the Department to access the information in person.

Where possible, the information will be provided in the format requested by the applicant.

Managing Requests for Information

The Act requires the Department to respond to any written request for information promptly and within 20 working days.

However, this timescale can, in exceptional circumstances, be extended if necessary to give full consideration to the public interest test.

If the deadline is not expected to be met, the applicant will be advised of the reason for the delay and the anticipated reply date.

Exemptions

Certain information held by the Department will be classified as exempt under the Act.

The 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.

Where information requested falls within the terms of a qualified exemption the relevant staff will assess 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 Department’s FOI Procedures Manual.

Further advice can be obtained from the relevant Local Information Manager or from the Departmental Information Manager.

Appeals and Complaints 

Any complaints about how the Department has handled requests for information under the Act should, in the first instance, be addressed to:

Head of Information Management Branch
Department of Health Social 
Information Management Branch
Annex 3
Castle Buildings
Stormont Estate
Belfast
BT3 4SR

An internal review of how the request was handled will be carried out within 20 working days.  Procedures are set out in the Department’s FOI Procedures Manual.

If the applicant is not content with the outcome of the internal review, they may complain to The Information Commissioner

Further Information

Any queries about Freedom of Information in the Department should be addressed to the relevant Local Information Manager or the Information Management Branch.

Further information can also be found on the websites of the Information Commissioner and the Ministry of Justice.

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