Freedom of Information (FOI) requests

‘Freedom of Information’ is a cumbersome term for what is sometimes a cumbersome process, says FOI specialist Martin Rosenbaum. But requests are a great way to get hold of otherwise unobtainable documents and data.

This page is part of our investigative journalism section.

The Freedom of Information Act-based revelations by the BBC include the number of mentally ill children held in police cells and details of councils paying under the recommended minimum for personal home care.

The Freedom of Information Act - dealing with England, Wales and Northern Ireland - gives everyone the right to access information held by more than 100,000 public authorities. Scotland has its own similar FOI Act.

The authorities covered range all the way from Downing Street to individual GP surgeries, including not only government departments and local councils but police forces, hospitals, schools and universities.

To make an FOI request you just have to ask for the information you want in writing. Many authorities provide the relevant email address on their website.

Of course there are numerous exemptions. A few are absolute, like that for the security agencies - an FOI request cannot force the disclosure of any details about them. But most are what are called ‘qualified exemptions’, such as the one for policy formulation in government. In these cases the law says that whether material is released should depend on whether the overall balance of the public interest favours disclosure or secrecy.

This is clearly a vague and subjective test and FOI disputes often consist of arguments over what would be in the public interest. But the general principle is still that information should be released unless there is an overriding reason for withholding it.

However, requests can also be turned down if they go over the cost limit because retrieving the information would take too long: three and-a-half days’ work for central government or two and-a-half days for other public bodies.

Authorities generally have 20 working days to respond to an FOI request, but can extend this if they need more time to assess the balance of the public interest.

If you are unhappy with a response you can ask the authority to conduct an internal review of its decision. If you are still unsatisfied you can complain to the information commissioner.

So what are the secrets to making effective use of FOI?

  • FOI is about accessing material that is held by a public authority. You will get nowhere asking for information that you think they should collect but do not. You need to have a ‘recorded information’ frame of mind - do not think ‘outside the box’; think ‘inside the filing cabinet’
  • A blank form can often be a useful guide to the categories of data an authority is collecting for a particular purpose
  • Be specific. Think carefully about the phrasing of your request to ensure it covers what you want: numbers of complaints, numbers of complainants, or numbers of incidents subject to complaint? They are not the same thing
  • This is especially important if you are sending a ‘round robin’ request to, for example, all police forces. If you ask for data for ‘the past five years’, say, some will provide it on the basis of calendar years and some financial years, making comparison difficult. So try to eliminate any possible ambiguity
  • Before sending a round robin to a large number of authorities, it can be worth sending a ‘pilot’ to a few to check your questions are sensibly phrased and effective
  • Try to use the jargon or phraseology that the authority itself uses to refer to the activity or topic you are interested in
  • Given the delays involved, FOI is only of benefit for material that would still be of practical use to you in a few weeks or even months
  • Environmental information is covered separately by the Environmental Information Regulations, which are generally slightly stronger than the FOI legislation. But you still ask for the material in the same way - it is up to the authority to respond according to the correct regime
  • Use the legal right you have to advice and assistance from the public body on the best way to make a request (for example, on how to narrow a request to bring it under the cost limit)
  • Think of FOI officers not as putting up obstacles but providing you with a pathway to the material you want. Sometimes they end up arguing your case within the authority to reluctant colleagues - so help them do that.