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Using the Freedom of Information Act

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A presentation for journalists on best use of the freedom of information laws

A presentation for journalists on best use of the freedom of information laws


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  • 1. Freedom of Information David Ottewell
  • 2. Before...“The very fact of [the] introduction [of the Freedom of Information Act] will signal a new relationship between government and people: a relationship which sees the public as legitimate stakeholders in the running of the country, and sees elections to serve the public as being given on trust.” Tony Blair, 1996
  • 3. ...and after“Freedom of information. Three harmless words. I look at those words as I write them, and feel like shaking my head until it drops off. You idiot. You naive, foolish irresponsible nincompoop. There is really no description of stupidity, no matter how vivid, that is adequate. I quake at the imbecility of it.” Tony Blair, 2010
  • 4. Freedom of Information Act 2000 Labour manifesto commitment in 1997 Came into force, along with Environmental Information Regulations, in 2005 Covers England, Wales, Northern Ireland Scotland has similar, but non-identical, law Brought UK into line with 85 other countries around world with some form of freedom of information legislation
  • 5. Principles Assumption in favour of disclosure Purpose-blind – no need to give reason for request Applicant-blind – all requests must be treated equally
  • 6. Who is covered? Public bodies – more than 100,000 in total Schedule 1 of the act contains a list of types of body It also contains a list of specific, named bodies which are classed as public bodies Secretary of state has power to designate further bodies Hybrid bodies partially covered – e.g. BBC, GPs, dentists
  • 7. Who is using it, and how often? Number of requests believed to be rising by between 5pc and 15pc a year Local authorities get most requests – around 200,000 a year Report by The Constitution Unit found, in first year of FOI, 43pc from individuals, 29pc from businesses, 11pc from journalists Latest figures show government departments answered 56pc of requests in full
  • 8. Requests to government
  • 9. Recent developments Justice Select Committees report suggested generally FOI working well But have proposed cost-ceiling reduction Ministry of Justice has raised concerns: a tool for journalists fishing for the next scandal MoJ commissioned a MORI study suggesting cost limit should be reduced and charges introduced, at least for serial requesters
  • 10. Making a request Must be in writing (this includes emails) Must specify what information is requested, and give a preferred format for response Must include an address for correspondence Should be directed at FOI officer and make clear it is a request under freedom of information laws
  • 11. The cost limit £600 for government departments (24 staff hours) £450 for other public bodies (18 staff hours) Can charge you for costs like photocopying and postage Can offer you the chance to pay if the cost exceeds the limit – but dont have to, and generally wont
  • 12. Exemptions Some are absolute – meaning there is no public-interest test Most are qualified – in which case the public body must run a public-interest test Vexatious requests will also be rejected This term is not clearly defined, but bodies can take into account the tone of the request, whether the requester is obsessive/harrassing/disruptive, and the value in the request
  • 13. Absolute exemptions Already reasonably accessible Security bodies/national security Court records Parliamentary privilege Personal information of requester Data protection act (person information of others), However whether DPA applies is subject to public- interest test (fairness) & doesnt apply to the dead Actionable confidentiality (from without)
  • 14. Qualified exemptions Intended for future publication Prejudice defence/armed forces/international relations/economy Prejudice law enforcement/investigations Audit functions Government policy/conduct of public affairs Communications with Royal Family Endangering health/safety Trade secrets
  • 15. Third-party information ICO published a note in relation to MPs exes Three stage test:set by information tribunal ONE: Is there legitimate public interest? TWO: Is disclosure necessary for that interest? THREE: Is there yet an excessive negative impact on individuals concerned? Decision upheld by High Court on appeal
  • 16. Most commonly used exemptions
  • 17. The time limit 20 working days before the authority must reveal if it has the information Must either give it to you or issue refusal notice Clock starts day after request received – unless need to clarify request Refusal notice must specify exemption(s) If exemption(s) qualified, can take reasonable extra time to consider public interest
  • 18. Right of appeal Initially should request an internal review – generally contesting public-interest case ICO has suggested this should take maximum of 40 days, usually no more than 20 Next step is to challenge independently through the ICO Most complaints that go to the ICO are informally resolved
  • 19. Authorities must be helpful“Authorities should... provide assistance to the applicant to enable him or her to describe more clearly the information requested... Appropriate assistance in this instance might include providing an outline of the different kinds of information which might meet the terms of the request.” Code of practice issued under S45 of the act
  • 20. Tip 1: know your exemptions Theres no point asking for something you know you have no chance of getting But you can get information relating to a persons role (e.g. council leaders claims for trips abroad) Be prepared to make a strong public-interest argument – search for and quote relevant precedents Be prepared to negotiate
  • 21. Tip 2: be precise Most FOI officers want to do their job – but that isnt second-guessing what you want Define terms: e.g. if asking for correspondence, clarify this means all letters, memos, reports and emails Set a clear time period – and be clear if the public body works in calendar or financial years
  • 22. Tip 3: work with the cost limit Plan your request. Ask for all correspondence between x and y for last five years, you wont get it. Ask for all emails between x and y with z in the subject heading, you will Find out if the information is kept in a specific format (e.g. a spreadsheet) – and ask for it Build in some flexibility – e.g. last 12-month period for which figures are readily available Ask the FOI officer to suggest a solution if they say your request goes over the cost limit
  • 23. Tip 4: stage your requests Give a maximal version but make clear you would accept less to avoid the cost ceiling For example: “All data about x for the last five calendar years; or, if that breaches the cost limit, then the last three calendar years; or, if that breaches the cost limit, then the last calendar year” Can stage in other ways, too – e.g. “All letters between x, y, z; or at least between x and y”
  • 24. Tip 5: dont give them an out If you think certain documents might contain elements that would fall foul of an exemption (e.g. names, commercial information), point out that you are prepared to consider some degree of redaction. (You can also do this after a RN) Suggest alternatives – e.g. if wont give names of police officers, ask for ranks, division, male or female, etc. (This will give you a better story and make it easier for you to track down the information through other sources)
  • 25. Tip 6: pitfalls of statistics Many statistics available elsewhere – ONS, Hansard, local government sites Should be monitored as a matter of course Dont pass off old statistics as new Dont just ask for figures – get details, too If possible, ask for raw-data documents (such as spreadsheets) rather than a précis If you are asking for statistics, be ambitious
  • 26. Tip 7: FOI is just the start Information must be put in context and the story must be developed Case studies Expert interpretation Reaction Graphical representation
  • 27. Tip 8: documents and dossiers Think about major events – try to get hold of relevant letters, reports and other documents In many cases these are filed in one place – so asking for them may NOT fall foul of the cost limit Government departments seem better at providing these than local authorities Do your research so you know what is new and what is not
  • 28. Tip 9: know your FOI officer They are not the enemy – they have a job to do and being prepared to be flexible and negotiate helps both parties Should be lines of communication – often by modifying a request slightly, or limiting its scope, will get the result you want
  • 29. Tip 10: know what you want Are there specific documents that you know exist? Plan your questions carefully with a journalistic nose for a story. What is the intro likely to be? What other information are you likely to need beyond the headline data? Make sure you ask for this at the same time
  • 30. Tip 11: steal good ideas Previous FOI requests can be found in various places – many can be adapted for reuse Public bodies often keep a list of FOIs they have answered online whatdotheyknow David Higgersons FOI blog has a weekly selection of the best FOI requests Google news searches for freedom of information
  • 31. Timeless classics Crimes against police stations/officers Personal information breaches Restaurant inspections for football clubs Gun licences to kids Police call-outs to hospitals Compo claims against schools etc Confiscations from courts/prisons Paedos on the run
  • 32. Tip 12: the limits of FOI Using FOI doesnt make you an investigative genius If you get information through the act you should mention it – but shock-horror obtained under FOI... intros are a cliché Contacts are still the best means of identifying and obtaining controversial documents Press officers will often issue information We dont want to be getting everything from FOI