Making Freedom of Information (FOI) requests

Making Freedom of Information (FOI) requests

If you’ve searched and searched in vain for information from, say, your local council or the police but can’t find it, issuing a ‘Freedom of Information’ (FOI) request may be the answer. This guide tells you more about FOIs, whether the process is likely to apply in your case, and offers some tips on how to prepare and issue requests.

On this page

1.     What are FOIs?

2.     Which organisations are covered by FOI law?

3.     What kind of information can I request?

4.     How do I make my request?

5.     How do I find addresses?

6.     How long do I have to wait for a response?

7.     Can my request be refused?

8.     Will I have to pay for the information?

9.     If I’m dissatisfied with the response, can I complain or appeal?

10.    What if I’m dissatisfied with the Commissioner’s decision notice?

11.    Sample request

12.    Tips

13.    Further reading

 

1. What are FOIs?

Maybe you want to know how many collisions have happened at a local blackspot, whether a risk assessment was carried out for new roundabout, when the council last inspected a road surface in poor repair, or how many drivers your local police force has charged for careless driving?

Sometimes, perhaps, you’ll want approach more than one organisation to highlight wider trends, or see how your local authority measures up to its neighbours.

Official information like this isn’t always published, but you are entitled to ask for it under legislation passed in 2000 for England, Wales & Northern Ireland, and in 2002 for Scotland.

 

2. Which organisations are covered by FOI law?

You can send FOIs to public bodies such as:

  • government departments (e.g. Dept. for Transport, Ministry of Justice, Home Office etc.)
  • government agencies (e.g. DVLA)
  • councils (all tiers of them)
  • national park authorities
  • the NHS, state schools and police forces.

FOI law covers publicly owned companies too (Highways Agency), but not the private sector.

Although you’re on relatively safe ground with government departments and councils with a compliant request, the law doesn’t cover every single organisation that receives public money (e.g. some charities that receive grants).

See the FOI Directory to browse the organisations covered by FOI law.

 

3. What kind of information can I request?

You can request any information you think the public body has recorded on, for example; computers, in emails or printed/handwritten documents, images, video and audio recordings.

Notes:

  1. FOIs are not the right mechanism for requesting data held on you personally. For this, you need to make a ‘subject access request’ under the Data Protection Act.  
  2. Similar but different regulations cover environmental information. If you’re unclear about what environmental information is, you’ll find it defined in the relevant regulations under ‘interpretation’. (Think air, water, natural sites/noise, emissions/protective measures/human health & safety/analyses and implementation of legislation etc.). You can make ‘environmental information’ requests to private or public companies that have public responsibilities (e.g. water companies).

 

4. How do I make my request?

You must make your request in writing, giving:

  • your name and contact address (post or email)
  • a clear description of the information you want. (Although it helps if you tell them you’re making an FOI request, they should treat it like one even if you don’t).

You can send your request by:

  • letter, email or fax
  • online form (may be available on the organisation’s website)
  • using What Do They Know, a site set up to help members of the public make FOI requests.
  • and even social media (according to the Government).

You can specify a format for their response, e.g.:

  • paper
  • electronic
  • large print.

Note, you can request environmental information (see 3 above) in person or by phone, and don’t have to give your name.

 

5. How do I find addresses?

  • You should be able to find email and postal addresses on the organisation’s website, many of which cite a dedicated FOI email address. The FOI directory is a good source too - we find it largely accurate, with a very low bounce back rate.
  • If you make your request through What Do They Know, they send it automatically to the right address.

 

Why use WhatDoTheyKnow?

What Do They Know makes the FOI process extremely simple.

You don’t have to search for addresses, they’ll prompt you to keep tabs on the responses you receive, and will store, gather and publish everything for you online, including your original request, the reply, any follow-up queries and clarifications.

This means that everything is in the public domain, but it’s a convenient feature if you need to make a complaint later on and accompany it with copies of your exchange.

Note, though, that the process for contacting more than one body at once is not yet automated, which means pasting and copying your request by hand to each of them. See ‘Tips’ below for advice on how to make multiple requests in another way.

 

 

6. How long do I have to wait for a response?

The authority should respond within 20 working days. If they need more time, they should tell you when to expect a later response, but this shouldn’t be any longer than 40 days after the date of your request. (Note, though, that coronavirus may have affected response times).

 

7. Can my request be refused?

In some cases, yes, but the organisation has to tell you why, and how to complain if you disagree.   

They might say that the information you’ve requested is:

  • Not available, either in part or wholly – i.e. they simply don’t have it;
  • Sensitive (e.g. if it breaches national security, or damages commercial interests);
  • Costs too much to provide (£450+ or, if the organisation is; a government department, Parliament, part of the armed forces, the Northern Ireland Assembly, Senedd Cymru, or based in Scotland - £600+).

Also, they aren’t obliged to deal with vexatious or repeated requests.

See 'tips' on how to maximise your chances of success.

 

8. Will I have to pay for the information?

Not usually, but you could be charged for photocopies or postage. This shouldn’t be much, and the organisation will tell you if they’re going to do that.

 

9. If I’m dissatisfied with the response, can I complain or appeal?

Maybe the organisation hasn’t responded, refused part (or all) of your request for no convincing reason, or taken an unreasonable amount of time to send it, then yes, you can complain about this, but you must stick to a process:

  • First, you must ask the organisation itself to review its response internally (the Information Commissioner’s Office recommends – but does not stipulate – that this should be done within 20 working days).
  • If you’re still not satisfied, you can appeal to the Information Commissioner’s Office. There are two: one for England, Wales and Northern Ireland (ICO-EWNI); and another for Scotland (ICO-S).

Complaining to the Information Commissioner’s Officer involves:

  • Doing so within: three months of your last meaningful contact with the organisation in England, Wales & Northern Ireland; six months of your review response in Scotland (but check ICO websites above just in case they revise this, e.g. because of coronavirus);
  • Completing a complaints form;
  • Enclosing copies of the exchange you’ve had with the organisation to date. (What Do They Know (see point 3) reports that, if you use their site, a link to the online record you’ve created is usually fine with the Information Commissioners).

The ICO will investigate and issue a decision notice (or tell you if your complaint isn’t valid).

 

10. What if I’m dissatisfied with the Commissioner’s decision notice?

  • The ICO-EWNI refers you to a tribunal
  • ICO-S refers you to the Court of Session, but only if you think the commissioner has applied the law incorrectly, not because you don’t agree with their view of the case.
  • Think about other ways to find the information you’re after – writing to your local councillor or MP, for example.

 

11. Sample request

Below is an example of an FOI request Cycling UK sent to the Department for Transport via What Do They Know in January 2020. We make the same request every year, so that we can analyse trends, and requests are always answered in full. (The mention of vehicles backing out of a private drive was the result of honing).



Sample FoI request

 

12. Tips

  • Check that the information you want isn’t already available to the public and/or that the organisation hasn’t answered the same request before (or repeatedly refused to answer it). Search their websites (some have an FOI section) or What Do They Know.  
  • Check that your target organisation is covered by FOI law (see point 2).
  • Satisfy yourself that you’re asking the right organisation (although they should tell you if they’re not and who is).
  • Don’t make overwhelming requests (you can ask follow-up questions if you need to). Remember that you could be charged a fee.
  • Keep questions focussed and clear. (Browse existing requests for some pointers).
  • It sometimes helps to explain, briefly and clearly, why you’re making the request.
  • Always be polite, never rude or personal, and don’t muddle your request with accusations, complaints or barbed comments.
  • The better structured your request is, the more structured the answer is likely to be. Remember that you’re going to have to analyse the results.
  • Before dispatching your request, ask someone else to check your wording for any mistakes or ambiguity.
  • If you’re asking for statistical data, you might want it to cover a period of five years or so (single years may reflect nothing more than misleading blips). Remember that it takes a while for some data to be compiled (for example, GB road casualty statistics for a year don’t appear until the following year). To get round this, time your requests accordingly, or ask for data covering the ‘latest five years for which data is available’). Being clear about your timespan is crucial when posing FOIs to multiple organisations – if not, you may well get mixed, inconsistent and potentially confusing results.   
  • Specify the format you prefer for your answer. For example, supply a spreadsheet/table template (especially useful if you’re approaching multiple organisations – some uniformity makes analysis so much easier). For requests through What Do They Know, you’ll need to upload it somewhere and provide a link to it, or paste it into your request.
  • Keep copies of your request and all subsequent correspondence, just in case you decide to complain later on. What Do They Know logs your complete exchange, which makes keeping records considerably easier.
  • Always double-check the relevant guidelines, especially for complaints. They may change.

Making requests of multiple organisations:

  • Download the relevant spreadsheet from the FOI Directory.
  • Format it so that you can send the question as a simple mail merge (there’s no shortage of online instructions on how to do a mail merge).
  • Consider asking a small sample first (e.g. 10), to assess the response/refusal rate and/or whether you haven’t made something clear. This gives you a chance to hone your question(s) before you send off the whole batch.
  • Expect an inbox clog. Avoid this by setting up a mail filter so that all auto-replies and other responses end up in the same folder. If you don’t know how, click on your email service’s ‘help’ or ‘options’ button (email services differ), or search online if that draws a blank. 
  • Trim your questions, asking only for the data you absolutely need. This helps maximise your response and makes the job of analysing it less time consuming and tedious.
  • Comparing data from several organisations can be fraught. You must make sure you’re comparing like-for-like and that your conclusions are fair (for example, if you find that one council has fixed 1,000s of potholes, but another only a handful, it may be simply because the first covers a massive area, and the second not much).

 

13. Further reading


[1] Freedom of Information Act 2000 https://www.legislation.gov.uk/ukpga/2000/36/contents; Freedom of Information (Scotland) Act 2002 https://www.legislation.gov.uk/asp/2002/13/contents

[3] The right to access this is covered by the Environmental Information Regulations 2004. https://ico.org.uk/for-organisations/guide-to-the-environmental-information-regulations/what-are-the-eir/.

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