Freedom of Information in England, Wales and N.Ireland
The Freedom of Information (FoI) Act became law on 30th November 2000 in England, Wales and N. Ireland. It gives the public a right of access to all types of recorded information held by public authorities, including the Health Service. The FoI Act specifically defines general practices as being within the scope of the Act, so practices must conform to the requirements of the Act. The FoI Act requires every organisation covered by the Act to respond to requests for information as set out below.
- Practices must reply within 20 working days to any credible written request for information from anywhere in the world
- The request can be by email or on paper, and be made to any member of staff
- It does not have to refer to the Freedom of Information Act
- Practices cannot ask the reason for the request, or question its reasonableness, but can work with the person(s) requesting the information to help them clarify what it is they are after so that the practice can best meet the request
- Every practice must maintain a publication scheme (see below)
- Failure to comply with the Act can result in contempt of court
Subscribers to the members section of the FPM website can access a draft FoI Policy Statement in the practice administration index of the policies and procedures library. If you are not a member, have a look at the information about the benefits of membership and how to subscribe.
Every NHS organisation, including general practices (GMS and PMS), must produce a Publication Scheme, which informs the public about how and when the organisation will make information available. Organisations can publish information in a variety of formats (e.g. by email, on a website or in hard copy). Practices which have a website may make the information available there (or on the website of their PCO), but practices are also required to make hard copies available if requested. Practices can make a charge for providing information (particularly if hard copy is requested), but the Publication Scheme must stipulate what the charges will be.
Much of the information that must be included in a practice's Publication Scheme may already exist in the practice leaflet. In summary, a publication scheme must include:
- Practice name, names of GPs, job titles of employed staff
- Practice area, practice address and branch surgery information
- Opening times, out of hours arrangements
- Services provided
- PCO details
- Overall practice income and prescribing costs (Partners' individual earnings are exempt from publication as they are protected under the Data Protection Act)
- Practice policies (inc. data protection, confidentiality, complaints)
- Contact details of person from whom information on policies can be obtained
- How information will be made available; charges for the provision of information
Does the FoI Act affect patients' rights to access their medical records?
The FoI Act does not give individuals access to personal information held about them. It is the Data Protection Act 1998 which gives, and will continue to give, patients rights of access to their medical records.
Freedom of Information in Scotland
Scotland has its own version of the Freedom of Information Act (the Freedom of Information [Scotland] Act 2002), which is very similar to the FoI Act described above.