Get Red Pepper's email newsletter. Enter your email address to receive our latest articles, updates and news.

×

Access all areas

Ever wanted to know who was responsible for closing your local swimming pool? Or about decisions to repatriate asylum seekers? Or how much of your cash goes to arms dealers? Well, the Freedom of Information Act could help you do so. Katherine Haywood offers advice on how to use it

February 1, 2005
4 min read

Your rights

The Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) came into effect on 1 January 2005 and gives the public access to all recorded information held by 100,000 different ‘public authorities’ in England, Wales and Northern Ireland. (Scotland has its own legislation.) Its range extends from central government all the way down to rural cop shops.

All authorities must reply within 20 working days of a request for information being made. If replies are not satisfactory, the public can seek redress through the information commissioner. Campaign for Freedom of Information director Maurice Frankel says: ‘This will give ordinary people the chance to challenge important decisions on what is actually happening, rather than what politicians say is being done.’

The FOIA has even gone some way to opening up private companies that are responsible for public contracts, thus making it easier for us to probe New Labour’s love affair with Public Private Partnerships, for example. But Geoff Hoon and his entourage in the Ministry of Defence (MoD) will be less exposed. Arms manufacturers have flexed their muscles, and will be protected by legally enforceable confidentiality agreements. The MoD has also lobbied the Department of Constitutional Affairs (the ministry responsible for drawing up the act) to delete guidance urging civil servants to reject confidentiality agreements ‘whenever possible’.

Exemptions

The FOIA allows authorities to withhold information for an annoying array of reasons: if, for example, disclosure would prejudice defence, international relations, law enforcement, legal advice or collective cabinet responsibility. A £450 cap on the cost of finding information (the public must pay for anything in excess of £100) is also grounds for refusal. You can’t get information ‘about the formulation of government policy’. And forget about the security and intelligence services.

But not all exemptions are absolute: many only apply where disclosure is harmful to the relevant authority; and most information must be disclosed if it is in the public interest. This even applies to the old get-out clause of ‘commercial confidentiality’.

Before you get too excited, though, ministers have final veto. Granville Williams, editor of Free Press, the newsletter of the Campaign for Press and Broadcasting Freedom, says: ‘The act might well be useful for information in a local capacity, but this veto makes central government very strong.’

Environmental information

Special rules applying to environmental information are set out in the new Environmental Information Regulations. These are much more generous. So try and frame your inquiry so that it has an environmental aspect to it. The wide-ranging definition of ‘environmental information’ includes land-use planning, public utilities, health and energy.

Top tips

  • Check whether the information is already available on the web. From 2000 all public departments have been setting up information disclosure policies in anticipation of the FOIA.
  • Send your request to the ‘Freedom of Information Officer’ at the relevant authority’s address.
  • Be as specific as possible. Requests that are too general may be refused, or the facts you want ‘misinterpreted’.
  • Authorities must provide reasonable advice and assistance. So phone them up to discuss what type of information there is on a subject, and how best to formulate a question. But don’t rely on this service, and don’t let authorities manipulate your original aim.
  • Keep a record of any phone conversations and letters, including details of the date of contact, what was said, who you spoke to, etc.
  • If at first you don’t succeed, try again. Ministers and public officials have fought hard against this law so they won’t give up information easily. If your request is refused, complain to the authority, citing public interest. If you’re rebuffed again, contact the information commissioner who can force disclosure. The law is only as good as we make it.

    Further information

  • Campaign for Freedom of Information
  • The information commissioner
  • Friends of the Earth (for help with environmental requests)
  • Red Pepper is an independent, non-profit magazine that puts left politics and culture at the heart of its stories. We think publications should embrace the values of a movement that is unafraid to take a stand, radical yet not dogmatic, and focus on amplifying the voices of the people and activists that make up our movement. If you think so too, please support Red Pepper in continuing our work by becoming a subscriber today.
    Why not try our new pay as you feel subscription? You decide how much to pay.

    Michael Cashman: Commander of the Blairite Empire
    Lord Cashman, a candidate in Labour’s internal elections, claims to stand for Labour’s grassroots members. He is a phony, writes Cathy Cole

    Contribute to Conter – the new cross-party platform linking Scottish socialists
    Jonathan Rimmer, editor of Conter, says it’s time for a new non-sectarian space for Scottish anti-capitalists and invites you to take part

    Editorial: Empire will eat itself
    Ashish Ghadiali introduces the June/July issue of Red Pepper

    Eddie Chambers: Black artists and the DIY aesthetic
    Eddie Chambers, artist and art historian, speaks to Ashish Ghadiali about the cultural strategies that he, as founder of the Black Art Group, helped to define in the 1980s

    Despite Erdogan, Turkey is still alive
    With this year's referendum consolidating President Erdogan’s autocracy in Turkey, Nazim A argues that the way forward for democrats lies in a more radical approach

    Red Pepper Race Section: open editorial meeting – 11 August in Leeds
    The next open editorial meeting of the Red Pepper Race Section will take place between 3.30-5.30pm, Friday 11th August in Leeds.

    Mogg-mentum? Thatcherite die-hard Jacob Rees-Mogg is no man of the people
    Adam Peggs says Rees-Mogg is no joke – he is a living embodiment of Britain's repulsive ruling elite

    Power to the renters: Turning the tide on our broken housing system
    Heather Kennedy, from the Renters Power Project, argues it’s time to reject Thatcher’s dream of a 'property-owning democracy' and build renters' power instead

    Your vote can help Corbyn supporters win these vital Labour Party positions
    Left candidate Seema Chandwani speaks to Red Pepper ahead of ballot papers going out to all members for a crucial Labour committee

    Join the Rolling Resistance to the frackers
    Al Wilson invites you to take part in a month of anti-fracking action in Lancashire with Reclaim the Power

    The Grenfell public inquiry must listen to the residents who have been ignored for so long
    Councils handed housing over to obscure, unaccountable organisations, writes Anna Minton – now we must hear the voices they silenced

    India: Modi’s ‘development model’ is built on violence and theft from the poorest
    Development in India is at the expense of minorities and the poor, writes Gargi Battacharya

    North Korea is just the start of potentially deadly tensions between the US and China
    US-China relations have taken on a disturbing new dimension under Donald Trump, writes Dorothy Guerrero

    The feminist army leading the fight against ISIS
    Dilar Dirik salutes militant women-organised democracy in action in Rojava

    France: The colonial republic
    The roots of France’s ascendant racism lie as deep as the origins of the French republic itself, argues Yasser Louati

    This is why it’s an important time to support Caroline Lucas
    A vital voice of dissent in Parliament: Caroline Lucas explains why she is asking for your help

    PLP committee elections: it seems like most Labour backbenchers still haven’t learned their lesson
    Corbyn is riding high in the polls - so he can face down the secret malcontents among Labour MPs, writes Michael Calderbank

    Going from a top BBC job to Tory spin chief should be banned – it’s that simple
    This revolving door between the 'impartial' broadcaster and the Conservatives stinks, writes Louis Mendee – we need a different media

    I read Gavin Barwell’s ‘marginal seat’ book and it was incredibly awkward
    Gavin Barwell was mocked for writing a book called How to Win a Marginal Seat, then losing his. But what does the book itself reveal about Theresa May’s new top adviser? Matt Thompson reads it so you don’t have to

    We can defeat this weak Tory government on the pay cap
    With the government in chaos, this is our chance to lift the pay cap for everyone, writes Mark Serwotka, general secretary of public service workers’ union PCS

    Corbyn supporters surge in Labour’s internal elections
    A big rise in left nominations from constituency Labour parties suggests Corbynites are getting better organised, reports Michael Calderbank

    Undercover policing – the need for a public inquiry for Scotland
    Tilly Gifford, who exposed police efforts to recruit her as a paid informer, calls for the inquiry into undercover policing to extend to Scotland

    Becoming a better ally: how to understand intersectionality
    Intersectionality can provide the basis of our solidarity in this new age of empire, writes Peninah Wangari-Jones

    The myth of the ‘white working class’ stops us seeing the working class as it really is
    The right imagines a socially conservative working class while the left pines for the days of mass workplaces. Neither represent today's reality, argues Gargi Bhattacharyya

    The government played the public for fools, and lost
    The High Court has ruled that the government cannot veto local council investment decisions. This is a victory for local democracy and the BDS movement, and shows what can happen when we stand together, writes War on Want’s Ross Hemingway.

    An ‘obscure’ party? I’m amazed at how little people in Britain know about the DUP
    After the Tories' deal with the Democratic Unionists, Denis Burke asks why people in Britain weren't a bit more curious about Northern Ireland before now

    The Tories’ deal with the DUP is outright bribery – but this government won’t last
    Theresa May’s £1.5 billion bung to the DUP is the last nail in the coffin of the austerity myth, writes Louis Mendee

    Brexit, Corbyn and beyond
    Clarity of analysis can help the left avoid practical traps, argues Paul O'Connell

    Paul Mason vs Progress: ‘Decide whether you want to be part of this party’ – full report
    Broadcaster and Corbyn supporter Paul Mason tells the Blairites' annual conference some home truths

    Contagion: how the crisis spread
    Following on from his essay, How Empire Struck Back, Walden Bello speaks to TNI's Nick Buxton about how the financial crisis spread from the USA to Europe