How to Use the Freedom of Information Act
In his 2010 memoirs, Tony Blair berated himself for introducing the Freedom of Information Act: ‘I feel like shaking my head till it drops off my shoulders. You idiot, you naïve, foolish, irresponsible nincompoop; I quake at the irresponsibility of it’. Nonetheless, the Act still stands, which means that, since 2005, every public sector organisation in the UK has been obliged to respond to requests for information from its citizens.
Who you can request information from
The Act covers information held by:
- government departments
- local authorities and councils
- health trusts, hospitals and doctors’ surgeries
- schools, colleges and universities
- the police
- publicly funded museums
- publicly owned companies
- many other public bodies, including quangos, committees and advisory bodies
What information can be requested
You can make an FOI for any recorded information held by a public authority and the public autority will have to provide the information to you unless an exemption applies in which case the authority will have to explain what exemption they are using to withhold the information.
The Act may also be used to elicit information about private companies where they interact public authorities through provision of goods and services. The Freedom of Information Act (FOI) is the first tool in any investigative researcher’s arsenal. It is very easy to make a request under the Act and the majority of public bodies will have a part of their website dedicated to Freedom of Information. Some useful web pages are:
As someone may previously have requested the information you are seeking, it is good practice to search the documents already released by the body you are investigating before making your request. Once you are satisfied that this information is not readily available in the public domain, you can send in a request (by post or email), stating succinctly what it is you require and giving your name (you may apply under a pseudonym but bear in mind that, if your case goes to appeal, you will need to provide an address. You do not need to mention the Act as your request will automatically be dealt with under its auspices. Be as specific as possible and consider using the dates of specific events you are enquiring about (if known) or date ranges for quantities of information solicited.
You are free to request all the information available on a particular topic, covering a variety of formats, including:
- Minutes of meetings
- Policy documents
- Registers of gifts and hospitality
- Registers of interests
- Details of communications – emails, letters, faxes and telephone transcripts, video, text messages, PowerPoint presentations
- Details of public money spent
Personal information held about you is exempt under Section 40 of the Act but it is accessible under the Data Protection Act.
Making a request
Every written request for recorded information made to a public authority is a valid FOI request. Requests can be made by post or by email. There is no special form of words that is needed in order to make an FOI request.
- ICO's How to access information from a public body
- FOI Man's Guide to Making FOI Requests
- whatdotheyknow.com (a site for making public freedom of information requests)
- example of an FOI request for correspondence between Google and the UK Government
- example of an FOI request for the register of gifts and hospitality
Format of the information released
You can ask the material to be sent to you as a hard copy or digitally, depending on your preference. Most requests are free of charge, but this implies an upper limit of £450 (£600 for central government) that will be borne by the public body finding and copying material; if fulfilling your request is likely to exceed this, you will be asked to narrow you request.
Note that, in a recent legal case concerning Glasgow City Council and the Scottish Information Commissioner, the judge took the view that the Act covered access to the information, rather than copies of the information itself, which has led to certain authorities (notably Strathclyde Police) providing summaries of information requested rather than original copies. This ruling does not apply to UK Central Government or public authorities in England, Scotland or Wales.
Every public body has a duty to reply within twenty working days unless they ask you for more time to process your request. Within the initial twenty-day period, they may also contact you in an attempt to establish precisely what kind of information you need.
Environmental and financial information may be covered under separate legislation. The former may be covered by Environmental Information Regulations; the latter is dealt with in the next section.
Exemptions and appeals
There are twenty-three exemptions to the Act, but the emphasis is on disclosure and it is the responsibility of the public authority to use exemptions judiciously. If you are not happy with the decision reached by the authority, you are entitled to launch a review process. In the reply to your original request, you will be given the contact details of someone within the same organisation to whom this request for a review should be made. If the original decision is upheld, totally or partially, and this is still not to your satisfaction, you should contact the information commissioner:
If you are dissatisfied with the Information Commissioner’s decision, you may appeal this:
Sometimes, public authorities will invoke copyright legislation when providing material to you. It is important to note that the Freedom of Information Act does not place restrictions on how you use the information you receive under it. An exception to this is where the material released is already covered by copyright, or where information is being used for commercial purposes. When using FoI, be persistent – some authorities are more forthcoming than others – and be prepared to challenge decisions.
Based on a presentation by Rob Evans
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- Tony Blair, A Journey (London: Hutchinson, 2010).
- Download the leaflet entitled ‘Your Right to Know’ about Freedom of Information in Scotland at: http://www.itspublicknowledge.info/nmsruntime/saveasdialog.asp?lID=1858&sID=321
- Use the Scottish Information Commissioner’s Response Calculator to see when you should expect a reply: http://www.itspublicknowledge.info/YourRights/responseCalculator.asp