Every public body required to comply with the Freedom of Information Act must have in place an approved publication scheme setting out information that must be routinely available to the public.

The approval for all current schemes, which began on 1 January 2005 when the act came into force, expires on 31 December 2008, so all public bodies must put a new, approved publication scheme in place from 1 January 2009.

Authorities must produce a guide to the specific information they hold that is contained in any of the scheme's seven classes. Information should be easily identified and accessed by the general public, according to guidance from the Information Commissioner's Office.

Approved model

As a result of the scheme's development and maintenance initiative, the ICO has introduced an approved model it is encouraging all public sector organisations to adopt. Guidance on what should be included in an authority's publication scheme covers the following groups:

  • health bodies in England;

  • health bodies in Wales;

  • community health councils in Wales;

  • health bodies in Northern Ireland;

  • health and social services councils in Northern Ireland.

For health bodies, the kind of information that should be set out includes:

  • where the body fits into the structure of the NHS;

  • organisational structure;

  • contact details for public-facing departments;

  • details of senior staff and management board members;

  • annual statements of accounts, budgets and variance reports;

  • staff pay and grading structures;

  • meeting agendas, supporting papers and minutes.

Any public authority that fails to have an approved publication scheme in place by 1 January 2009 will breach the Freedom of Information Act.

Becoming transparent

The ICO has also recently published guidance urging public authorities to become "more transparent" by publishing the minutes and agendas of meetings. The guidance sets out that the following should be routinely published:

  • minutes and agendas of public meetings;

  • documents required to be made public pursuant to other legislation;

  • minutes of senior-level policy and strategy meetings i.e. board meetings;

  • any background minutes referred to in the agendas or minutes.

The following do not need to be published:

  • any information that would be exempt under the act or the Environmental Information Regulations;

  • any personal information, disclosure of which would breach the Data Protection Act;

  • minutes of meetings held more than three years ago;

  • lower-level internal meetings of less interest to the public.

Under the Freedom of Information Act, minutes and agendas do not have automatic exemption from disclosure simply because the meeting was held in private. However, there may be exemptions that apply to some or all of the document in question (for instance, if the minutes consist solely of advice given by legal advisers, they may be exempt by reason of being protected by legal professional privilege).