Freedom of Information

The Freedom of Information Act gave people the right to request information from public bodies. It is a very important tool for journalists, though not for on-the-day journalism. For one thing, it can provide the documentary evidence that makes a story safe to run, as well as revealing new stories.

Perhaps the most famous use of the Freedom of Information Act was to expose abuse of Parliamentary expenses. Some MPs went to prison.

Many public bodies, such a local authorities, publish advice on their websites about how to make an FoI request – as on the Parliament website, here.

A log of FoI requests made to Parliament is available here – but with no details of the replies. Information requested in 2011 included the prices of drinks in House of Commons bars, the cost of a Christmas party, and details of allowances claimed by deceased MPs.

The notion is that in a democracy, taxpayers and voters should be entitled to know about the decisions of politicians and officials.

Britain only brought in rights to access official information in 2005 – which was 239 years behind Sweden.

The EU has a system of its own. Good luck with it…

FoI in UK covers more than 100,000 ‘public authorities’ from schools to government departments. Both UK acts (Scotland has its own) require relevant information to be supplied within 20 working days.

Bodies can refuse to supply information if:

  • It is exempt (though the Act says sometimes even exempt material must be supplied)
  • the request is vexatious or similar to a previous request
  •  the cost of compliance exceeds an appropriate limit

There are two classes of exemption: absolute means just that; qualified means public interest may outweigh secrecy concerns.

Authorities may refuse requests ‘likely to prejudice’ law enforcement or UK interests abroad.

Some information released remains subject to copyright, meaning restraints on reporting it.

Reasons for exemption include concern that material could prejudice a trial, lead to contempt of court, or infringe Parliamentary privilege, say.

To make a request, write to the organisation by email or post. Websites often provide a link. Authorities are encouraged to enter into dialogue to clear up any vague points, and to supply additional information that will help with clarity.

The questioner must give his name and contact details, but is not required to give a reason for the request.

FoI requests are usually free. They can be refused if the cost of answering is more than £600 in staff time (government) or £450 (other public bodies), or a charge can be levied.

There is a less-well known variant of FoI that also covers public utilities (such as water companies), which are excempt from FoI.

The Environmental Information Regulations 2004 give public access to information about the natural environment, including potential hazards. Requests can be made verbally. The six categories include emissions etc, policies, human health, and cultural sites.

If an FoI request is refused, a journalist can appeal to the Information Commissioner. There is information on the IC website http://www.ico.gov.uk/

Past FoI successes:

  • BBC Newsnight exposed the Macmillan Government’s sale to Israel of enough uranium to develop a nuclear weapons programme, and later, to expose sales of plutonium to Israel under Wilson.
  • In 2005, The Guardian revealed details of a torture camp operated by British forces in post-war Germany. Two suspected communists at the camp were starved to death.

A private members’ bill launched by David Maclean in May 2007 attempted to exempt MPs from the Act. The Lord Chancellor, Lord Falconer, was privately making similar moves. It found no supporter in the Lords and was condemned by the Commons Constitutional Affairs Select Committee, and failed. But Jack Straw issued new guidelines to stop MPs’ correspondence with constituents being released.

Critics say the Act has been exploited by lazy journalists to produce humdrum information. Experienced users say too little use is being made of it.

In March 2016, the government promised to make no changes to Freedom of Information law after a review found it was working well. Journalists mounted a campaign against feared restrictions; top universities and local government complained that it was too big a burden. Read more

Frivolous requests cited at the annual FoI conference included a question asking how much the Foreign Office spent on Ferrero Rocher chocolates.

The BBC’s Panorama used FoI to uncover the salaries of senior public servants. Its methodology is explained here: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-11369278

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