Freedom of Information

Freedom of Information Requests: A How-To Guide


The Freedom of Information Act 2002 is a wonderful piece of legislation- a real tool of individual power in a functioning democracy.

Under s1(1) of the act, any person has a general right to request any information from a public body. Think about that for a moment, about how powerful a tool it is. The right isn’t absolute, there are grounds under which a public body can refuse, but the presumption is that information should be released.

I’ve been making a lot of FoI requests lately, uncovering a lot of interesting information, but the thing is that this act shouldn’t be used only by journalists and political activists. This should be something at the fingertips of every man woman and child in the country. So here, ladies and gentlemen, is my guide on how to do it:

  • Who are you asking?

The first thing you need to think about is who it is you want information from. The act only applies to public bodies, but that doesn’t simply mean ministerial departments and local authorities. Public body is wider than that, and would include bodies such as Ofsted, as well as publicly funded universities.

I’ve included below a list of contact details for various public bodies, in Excel documents. This isn’t all-inclusive, and I will continue to update and add to this in the future. You’d do well to check back here when you’re thinking of making a request, to make sure you have the latest version. What I am proud of here is a complete list of English local authorities.

FOI Contact Details – UK Governmental Depts

FOI Contact Details – English Local Authorities

With local authorities, be clear who is the relevant body for you to query is. For example, I live in Wokingham Borough, which is a unitary authority. This means that all local matters are under the control of Wokingham Borough Council. However, some people will still live under the two-tier system of County and District Councils. If you’re not sure, have a look at the Excel spreadsheet and find your local council. I’ve included the types of council in there too. If it is a non-metropolitan district, then you will need to consult the county council (which is included in brackets) on some matters. For precisely which, see the table below:

Service

Non-metropolitan county    Non-metropolitan district    Unitary authority
Education Yes Yes
Housing Yes Yes
Planning applications Yes Yes
Strategic planning Yes Yes
Transport planning Yes Yes
Passenger transport Yes Yes
Highways Yes Yes
Fire Yes Yes
Social services Yes Yes
Libraries Yes Yes
Leisure and recreation Yes Yes
Waste collection Yes Yes
Waste disposal Yes Yes
Environmental health Yes Yes
Revenue collection Yes Yes
  • What are you asking for?

This is very important. You cannot make vague requests to public bodies. Most often, the reason you’re making the request is because the body hasn’t released the information already themselves. Hence there may be some reluctance to release it to you. So you need to construct your request so as to avoid any loopholes through which they might be able to escape.

The best way is to keep it simple. Raw data is the easiest. For example, in my quest to compare libraries across the country, I’ve asked for the budget, the number of visits and the number of registered members. I can work out the rest for myself. If you’re confident enough in your abilities to do this, then it’s what I’d recommend.

Below, you’ll find a PDF of an example wording for a request. There’s no set format, but that contains everything you need. Of particular importance is the paragraph about s16. s16 says:

It shall be the duty of a public authority to provide advice and assistance, so far as it would be reasonable to expect the authority to do so, to persons who propose to make, or have made, requests for information to it.

This basically means that they have to be helpful towards you regarding your request. If there’s some minor problem with your request, they can’t just decide not to fulfil it. They have to advise you on it, and help you get the information you want.

FOI Request Example

The right to information is not absolute. The act itself provides for exemptions. These are all fairly common-sensical- if the information is already available elsewhere, or if it is not conducive to the public good (national security, etc). But a public body should acknowledge receiving a request, and should respond within 20 working days (so not including either weekends or public holidays) with either the information you requested, an explanation as to why the provision will take longer, or an explanation as to why they won’t release the information.

If you’re unhappy with the response you receive, then you can contact the body in question to request an internal review, or make a complaint to the Information Commissioner’s Office (but you should do the former before the latter).

This is a very important and valuable tool for keeping government in check, so please do make use of it. Requesting trivial data is fine- as without such requests we’d never know all sorts of interesting tidbits. But daft and stupid requests, like asking a council what preparations have been made for a zombie attack, are wasteful (though, if the request had revealed expensive preparations had been made, we’d all have been up in arms about wasteful local government spending, so I guess it’s swings and roundabouts, really).

Advertisements

Freedom of Information and Wokingham Borough Libraries


It's been a fair few years since I studied maths, and it was never my favourite subject, so I offer this to you as a labour of love!

The Freedom of Information Act is a wonderful thing, isn’t it? It allows me to request any information from a public body, and they must respond within 20 working days with either the answer to a question or an explanation as to why that answer is not forthcoming. And anyone in the UK can make such a request.

Over the last few months, I’ve made a couple of such requests to Wokingham Borough Council, regarding the library service which they want to privatise. Specifically, I asked for the number of visits to each library in the last financial year, the number of registered users at each library (broken down into age groupings), and information regarding the libraries budget.

The information was forthcoming, and those interested person can find the result here:

Wokingham Borough Library Statistics

This is not, I should point out, exclusively the raw data that was provided to me (though I would point out that it is there). I have done some mathematical acrobatics in order to coax some of the interested facts out of it (pick your jaw up- yes, I can do maths!).

One such interesting point is that, for the financial year 2010-2011, the Borough spent an average figure of £24 per registered member of the library. Also, that the whole library system costs the Borough £193.28 for every hour which it is open (of which there are 12,944.5 each year). This works out at costing the borough £5.41 per visit to a library. Which doesn’t sound too bad to me. It makes a library cheaper than the cinema, certainly.

Other interesting facts emerged in the demographics. The largest age group of registered members in the Borough was 25-40, though this varied between individual libraries, as you would expect. I was quite heartened to see that my own local library in Wargrave has under 18s as its largest age group.

The problem with this data is, of course, the lack of a context. £5.41 per visit sounds pretty good to me, but given that I’m not privy to the intricate and mysterious workings of library services, I have to accept that it could be a woefully inefficient use of money. If I’m to use this data to assess whether the council’s privatisation plans are a justified attempt to increase value for money, or trying to fix something that isn’t broken, I’m going to need to know how other councils are doing.

And to that end, I’ve sent out some more FoI requests today. 152 of them, to be precise: one to every county council, london borough and unitary authority in England (non-metropolitan districts do not have responsibility for libraries). So in 20 working days (10th November, by my watch) I’m going to be swimming in numbers. Hopefully I’ll manage to hammer out something coherent in time for the council debate on the matter, on 17th Novemmber.

One interesting result is that I’ve been left with a rather lengthy list of all of the contact address for FoI requests for all of the local authorities in England. I may need to post it up here, later, along with a guide to FoI requests, and help bring power back to the people…