How to make a FOI request.
- Email the public body you want to request information from. But they FOI requests are not easy to receive and you are only likely to receive the information you want if you question is specific to what you need to know. You can also use the website 'WhatDoTheyKnow'
-You can email about almost anything without having to provide them with a reason as to why you want to know and its free. This accessibility is a privilege to journalists, who can plan in advance story ideas that will give them an exclusive inside scoop to stories relating to the news agenda.
- Consider when you are making an FOI request. If you needed to write a story based on suncream, submitting a request to a suncream company in May would be too late. You need to make these requests as early as possible in the year. By law the public authority must reply within 20 working days. It can even take longer if the authority is considering whether the information is within the public's interest. This can take up to 40 days to consider it. So allow plenty of time when planning a story.
- You have to speak in the right 'bureaucrat language' when writing a request.
What if the public body deny giving the information?
- Often a company will say the request is too expensive by calculating how long it will take them to find out. But you do not have to accept this. You can go through the stages to receive it. Starting with an internal review and then an information commissioner and then to a tribunal and eventually a high court. Heather Brooke is an example of a journalist who won the rights to information about the expenses scandal.
There are however two cases that will exempt an authority giving you the information, these are:
- Absolute- This is information that is absolutely exempt from being disclosed. e.g; security services, court records. They have no duty to confirm or deny that any information exists.
- Qualified- this is where it becomes partially exempt. e.g; ministerial communications, commercial confidentiality. These are the areas journalists will often work in. If information is covered by Qualified exemption you should still be given it if it is on the balance of the 'public interest' and passes the public interest test.
What are the public sectors?There are approximately 130,000 public bodies that we can request information from, subject to certain exemptions. A list of the public bodies are found on this website: http://webarchive.nationalarchives.gov.uk/+/http:/www.dca.gov.uk/foi/yourRights/publicauthorities.htm
What is public interest?
This always has an 'elastic' definition. The judges look at each case individually.
- furthering the understanding of and participation in the public debate of issues of the day
- - allowing individuals and companies to understand decisions made by public authorities affecting their lives
- - bringing to light information affecting public health and public safety.
The information could be on any technology not just paper.
There are 100,000 requests a year costing approximately 34 million. Only 12% of these are requests from journalists. (estimate)
The government have this law in place to promote accountability and transparency. The government make you follow the law through legitimacy made through democracy and accountability.
FOI was a New Labour policy objective (2005)
“Unnecessary secrecy in government leads to arrogance in government and defective policy decisions” - Tony Blair 1995
Blair initially deemed the FOI act as a good idea. But he ended up regretting this law, even calling himself "You idiot. You naive, foolish, irresponsible nincompoop." in a biography. With the realisation that journalists where using this information to uncover new material. He felt it was dangerous, because the government needed to discuss issues "with a reasonable level of confidentiality".
If the conservatives win the next general election we could see a change with the FOI act. The powers of it may be cut back to limit groups or individuals making too many requests where they have become a 'burdensome'- clearly an attack on journalists.
Lower limits on costs, leading to more being refused.
Press organisations and freedom of speech campaigners have been very critical of the plans. But there is only a year left with this parliament so it will be unlikely that the act will be changed in any time soon.