There was much ado in January 2005 when the Freedom of Information Act came into force, with newspapers publicising some high profile instances where they had used the Act to obtain information. However, many people are still in the dark as to how exactly to submit a request. “Is there a special form to fill out and where do I get it from?” was one question we received recently. Putting in a freedom of information act request is quite the opposite, however. You don’t even need to quote the act. Let’s explore just what you do need to supply when making a request.
Anyone – anywhere in the world – can submit a Freedom of Information Act request to any public authority or wholly owned public company in the UK. There are over a hundred thousand public authorities, which include everything from the Home Office down to your local parish council – all authorities come under the umbrella of the Freedom of Information Act. The Department of Constitutional Affairs has a full list of public authorities.
You can request any information the authority holds. Don’t be shy here – the authority has very limited grounds for refusal, and in many instances needs to have a watertight argument that it’s in the public’s best interest to withhold the information if it does decline to provide you with it. But you do need to request information that it holds – and you can’t ask for information that it holds on behalf of another organisation, or an opinion. The authority needs to be able to find and provide you with the information, rather than create it.
That’s the authority’s duty, but what of yours? You need to provide a name – which can be a pseudonym – a request for information, and an address. Then you need to give it to anyone that works for the public authority. Though you are within your rights to send a text message to the head of the department’s tea maker asking for the information to be sent to a hotmail address, as with anything, your chances of getting good service will be enhanced if you are professional in your dealings.
Finding out the correct contact person for your request from the authority’s Internet site (it ought to be under ‘publication scheme’) will ensure they don’t have to rush a reply to you which is what might happen if your request gets delayed in the organisation’s postal system.
Including as many contact details you have, such as email address, physical address, work, mobile and home phone numbers can assist the authority in contacting you should they need to clarify anything.
Your query ought to be as specific as possible, outlining exactly the information you require. Though there’s no compunction for you to do so, if you explain what you require the information for this can assist the authority to answer your request in the most suitable manner.
Once you’ve written your query, read back over it to check your spelling and ensure it makes sense. Finally, don’t forget to date your correspondence!
Once the authority receives the request, they ought to send you some acknowledgement saying so, and let you know when you will hear back from them. If they’re unclear about anything, they may reply or call to clarify as they have a duty to provide reasonable advice and assistance to applicants.
If you haven’t received your response within twenty working days – about a month later – the authority has fallen foul of the law, though it does have a right to extend the deadline if they need to conduct a public interest test, but only to a reasonable limit. This ‘public interest test’ extension has caused a number of requesters to become disgruntled and the Campaign for Freedom of Information and the Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) are pushing for some restrictions on its use. Whatever the case, the authority is required to inform you of the delay and explain how long they expect it will take.
If you’re not happy with the response, the authority’s covering letter to you ought to outline ways in which you can appeal their decision. If the authority has invoked the public interest test, it has declined to issue you with information that you want, and their arguments for non-disclosure aren’t fully disclosed or seem vague, don’t hesitate to appeal their decision. It is free to do so.
Initially ask for an internal appeal, whereby they’ll have to appoint someone else to go over the request and answer it. If their answer is the same, take it to the ICO. The authority is obliged to inform you how to do this, and if you’re not satisfied with the ICO’s decision, appeal to the Information Tribunal. They have reversed a number of ICO decisions so far so get in there and set a precedent. If you still don’t agree there is always the courts, which may cost you, but we are yet to see any judgements from them over freedom of information.
After all, the Freedom of Information Act is all about opening up government to make it more transparent and accountable. Eventually people will begin trusting their civil servants again. They will also start participating in their democracy, and be able to enjoy living in a more inclusive society. So get in there and find out the truth. If they are wrong, expose them. If you’re wrong, write back and thank them for their time and effort. And if they could have done better, pester them to make changes that will ensure your, and ultimately everyone’s, peace of mind.