From the killing of Afghan civilians by British soldiers to the release of Prince Charles’ Black Spider memos, Freedom of Information requests have proven to be one of the most useful tools for journalists.
Enabling you to ask questions of – and often get an answer from – any public body, it’s well worth knowing the ins and outs of the FOI Act, as its the source of thousands of exclusives every year.
To give you a bit of a heads up, we’ve put together a brief guide of how to FOI, so you can rest easy and snag all the scoops.
What is the Freedom of Information Act (FOI)?
Introduced by the Labour government in 2000 and coming into force in 2005, the Freedom of Information Act essentially gave any member of the public the right to access information held by public sector or publicly-funded bodies.
Subject to a few conditions, you’re entitled to receive an answer to any question within 20 working days.
Who can I FOI?
You’re entitled to send an FOI to any public authority, which covers about 10,000 major and minor bodies in the public sector. This includes:
- National government departments, the House of Commons, the House of Lords and the national assemblies of Northern Ireland and Wales
- The armed forces
- Local government agencies such as councils, emergency serves and waste disposal agencies
- Universities, colleges and schools in the state sector
- The NHS
What can – and can’t – I ask?
In essence, you can ask anything you like of a public body, but there are number of exceptions. These are:
- If finding the information is deemed to be too costly: For government departments this means the cost would exceed £600 and for other bodies the limit is £450. They’re then obliged to ask if you want to proceed with payment if this is the case. However, if your request is too costly, you can try splitting it up into smaller requests, as there’s no limit on how many you can put in!
- If they don’t actually hold the information: They will have to make it clear to you they don’t actually have the information you’re asking for.
- If the information is already reasonably accessible already: If it’s already elsewhere they don’t have to give it to you. Hence why you should always check whether the information you’re asking for is already kicking about.
There are other exemptions for things like national security and commercial sensitivity, but you’re unlikely to come across these.
If you’re looking for inspiration of what kinds of things you’ll be able to dig out, it’s worth taking a look at #FOIFriday by David Higgerson, who points out some of the best FOI stories each week.
WhatDoTheyKnow is also a great resource to see what other people are asking – but don’t use it yourself or other people may steal your ideas!
In general though, FOIs are a great tool to get data and stats you wouldn’t normally have access too.
How do I put in an FOI?
All you need to do in most cases is send an email outlining your request to the relevant body. Most places will now have a specific FOI address, but if you’re stuck finding it FOI Directory is a great place to find email address.
Try to be as specific as you can in your request. This template tends to work good as gold for us:
Dear Sir/ Madam,
I am writing to make a request for all the information to which I am entitled under the Freedom of Information Act. In order to assist you with this request, I am outlining my query as specifically as possible. If, however, this request is too wide or too unclear, I would be grateful if you could contact me as I understand that under the act, you are required to advise and assist requesters.
I am looking to find out as much detail and information as possible on [INSERT QUERY HERE]. My main questions are as follows:
- [SPECIFIC QUESTION HERE]
- [SPECIFIC QUESTION HERE]
I would like this information presented to me via a Microsoft Word or Excel document, sent to me via email please. I understand that under the act, I should be entitled to a response within 20 working days. I would be grateful if you could confirm in writing that you have received this request. I also understand that requests may be refused if you believe they would involve too much time or unreasonable costs. Therefore, if this is the case in my request, I would appreciate your disregard of the last question asked and to continue with the rest of the FOI request as is routine.
I look forward to hearing from you in the near future.
You’ll note in the template that under the act public bodies are required to help you with a request if required, which means you can ask them before you submit how best to frame it.
You should then receive a confirmation email to advise you they’re working on your request and a response to your request in 20 days. If you don’t get anything, give them a nudge.
What do I do if they deny my request?
If an organisation denies your request and you don’t feel it’s fair, you can appeal. In the first instance there will normally be an internal appeal, but if you’re still not happy with the response, you can then take this to the Information Commissioner. Some student journalists have in fact taken public bodies to court over an FOI request denial – and even won!