Before you start:
The first thing you need to know is Freedom of Information (FOI) is a negotiation, not a right. You won’t get what you want if you don’t ask for it properly, if you don’t ask the right person and if you’re not aware of legislation that can override the information you request. Remember the redacted version of the MP expenses! So just think of the Freedom of Information Act as a framework for your argument. And as with any argument you need to have a specific direction in mind before you begin dialogue so don’t go shooting in the dark by requesting reams of data. Have a specific investigatory line in mind.
What you need to know:
You can submit your request to any person in an organisation. You can be anyone, you don’t even need to be a UK citizen. This works similarly in the US where a British citizen can also request information. You also don’t have to give away any personal information i.e. your occupation, who you work for or what you’re working on.
A request must be made in writing. An email will suffice. Most big institutions have FOI officers so go through them. Give them your name an address (could be just your email) and try and be as precise as possible about the information you’re after (i.e. which department, from what dates, which regions, etc). Think carefully how you phrase your question and ask for actual documents where possible. Technically the age of the information should be irrelevant but older data may be more difficult to retrieve and so that cost factor can arise. A request can be make from
- Central government and government departments including Quangos
- Local authorities
- All NHS bodies including GPs, hospitals, surgeries, dentists, pharmacists and opticians
- State schools, colleges and universities
- Police forces and prison services
- Armed forces but beware the information you want may be exempt for reasons of National Security
You should specify in what form you want your information e.g. Excel spread sheet, text file, pdf document, etc.
The clock starts from when they first receive it even if they fail to pass it on promptly and they have to comply with your request within 20 days or at least let you know why they are refusing it. The time limit can be extended if your request needs clarifying. A request can be refused on cost grounds. The current cost limit is based on three working days. That’s £600 for government departments and £450 for the rest. It is up to the authoirites to decide whether to charge or refuse. If they decide to charge they charge the full amount not the cost over and above the three working day limit. You can try and split your request into parts but an authority can add the cost of these together if they are similar and less than 60 days apart. But the refusing body has to explain why it believes it would cost too much and offer a compromise in getting you want you want.
What’s stopping you:
Absolute exemptions are
- Information accessible by other means ie. open data published on websites (see Useful Sites)
- Information supplied by security bodies
- Court records
- Parlimentary privilege
- Personal information covered by the Data Protection Act 1998
Subject to public interest tests i.e. areas you may have difficulty with
- Information which is going to be published
- Sensitive information that involve national security, defence, international relations and relations within the UK
- Information held by a public body that relates to ongoing investigations and proceedings by public authorities
- Any law enforcement information that may be prejudicial
- The audit of accounts
- Information relating to the formulation of Government policy
- Information that may be damaging to the public and make authorites lives difficult or as the act puts it Prejudice to Effective Conduct of Public Affairs
- Information involving royalty although their spending is public information
- Any information that could endanger the safety or physical or mental health of any individual
- Environmental information as it is covered by the Environmental Information Regulations 2004
- Client-lawyer confidentiality or as the act puts it Legal Professional Privilege
- When non-public bodies creep into the equation, in other words any information involving commercial interests
Be aware that if some of the information you request does fall under an exemption you are entitled to the rest.
How to get what you want:
You can appeal a refusal by writing to the Information Commissioner. There is no set time for an appeal but central government departments aim to deal with ‘simple matters’ in 2 to 3 weeks and ‘complex’ ones in six weeks. The line between ‘simple’ and ‘complex’ can be pretty blurred mind. However, you should be given an estimated time for the appeal. You must have tried to resolve the matter with the requesting body sufficiently before asking for an external review. If you’ve gone through all that trouble then do nag the commissioner as his wage comes from taxpayers money.
The public interest is your strongest ally when it comes to winning your FOI argument. So make sure you’ve researched your story first. If you’re sure you’re right then push and push for your information.
FOI can be very time comsuming and you can have many in progress at the same time. So keep a careful record of which FOI requests you’ve submitted or better yet use some of the sites I’ve mentioned on my Useful Sites page.
Once you’re extracted information make it public. Blog and upload. It’s best for everyone. Always credit the Freedom of Information Act so people are more aware of it’s uses.