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)

  • ✹ Try our new pay-as-you-feel subscription — you choose how much to pay.

    Civic strike paralyses Colombia’s principle pacific port
    An alliance of community organisations are fighting ’to live with dignity’ in the face of military repression. Patrick Kane and Seb Ordoñez report.

    Greece’s heavy load
    While the UK left is divided over how to respond to Brexit, the people of Greece continue to groan under the burden of EU-backed austerity. Jane Shallice reports

    On the narcissism of small differences
    In an interview with the TNI's Nick Buxton, social scientist and activist Susan George reflects on the French Presidential Elections.

    Why Corbyn’s ‘unpopularity’ is exaggerated: Polls show he’s more popular than most other parties’ leaders – and on the up
    Headlines about Jeremy Corbyn’s poor approval ratings in polls don’t tell the whole story, writes Alex Nunns

    The media wants to demoralise Corbyn’s supporters – don’t let them succeed
    Michael Calderbank looks at the results of yesterday's local elections

    In light of Dunkirk: What have we learned from the (lack of) response in Calais?
    Amy Corcoran and Sam Walton ask who helps refugees when it matters – and who stands on the sidelines

    Osborne’s first day at work – activists to pulp Evening Standards for renewable energy
    This isn’t just a stunt. A new worker’s cooperative is set to employ people on a real living wage in a recycling scheme that is heavily trolling George Osborne. Jenny Nelson writes

    Red Pepper’s race section: open editorial meeting 24 May
    On May 24th, we’ll be holding the third of Red Pepper’s Race Section Open Editorial Meetings.

    Our activism will be intersectional, or it will be bullshit…
    Reflecting on a year in the environmental and anti-racist movements, Plane Stupid activist, Ali Tamlit, calls for a renewed focus on the dangers of power and privilege and the means to overcome them.

    West Yorkshire calls for devolution of politics
    When communities feel that power is exercised by a remote elite, anger and alienation will grow. But genuine regional democracy offers a positive alternative, argue the Same Skies Collective

    How to resist the exploitation of digital gig workers
    For the first time in history, we have a mass migration of labour without an actual migration of workers. Mark Graham and Alex Wood explore the consequences

    The Digital Liberties cross-party campaign
    Access to the internet should be considered as vital as access to power and water writes Sophia Drakopoulou

    #AndABlackWomanAtThat – part III: a discussion of power and privilege
    In the final article of a three-part series, Sheri Carr gives a few pointers on how to be a good ally

    Event: Take Back Control Croydon
    Ken Loach, Dawn Foster & Soweto Kinch to speak in Croydon at the first event of a UK-wide series organised by The World Transformed and local activists

    Red Pepper’s race section: open editorial meeting 19 April
    On April 19th, we’ll be holding the second of Red Pepper’s Race Section Open Editorial Meetings.

    Changing our attitude to Climate Change
    Paul Allen of the Centre for Alternative Technology spells out what we need to do to break through the inaction over climate change

    Introducing Trump’s Inner Circle
    Donald Trump’s key allies are as alarming as the man himself

    #AndABlackWomanAtThat – part II: a discussion of power and privilege
    In the second article of a three-part series, Sheri Carr reflects on the silencing of black women and the flaws in safe spaces

    Joint statement on George Osborne’s appointment to the Evening Standard
    'We have come together to denounce this brazen conflict of interest and to champion the growing need for independent, truthful and representative media'

    Confronting Brexit
    Paul O’Connell and Michael Calderbank consider the conditions that led to the Brexit vote, and how the left in Britain should respond

    On the right side of history: an interview with Mijente
    Marienna Pope-Weidemann speaks to Reyna Wences, co-founder of Mijente, a radical Latinx and Chincanx organising network

    Disrupting the City of London Corporation elections
    The City of London Corporation is one of the most secretive and least understood institutions in the world, writes Luke Walter

    #AndABlackWomanAtThat: a discussion of power and privilege
    In the first article of a three-part series, Sheri Carr reflects on the oppression of her early life and how we must fight it, even in our own movement

    Corbyn understands the needs of our communities
    Ian Hodson reflects on the Copeland by-election and explains why Corbyn has the full support of The Bakers Food and Allied Workers Union

    Red Pepper’s race section: open editorial meeting 15 March
    On 15 March, we’ll be holding the first of Red Pepper’s Race Section open editorial meetings.

    Social Workers Without Borders
    Jenny Nelson speaks to Lauren Wroe about a group combining activism and social work with refugees

    Growing up married
    Laura Nicholson interviews Dr Eylem Atakav about her new film, Growing Up Married, which tells the stories of Turkey’s child brides

    The Migrant Connections Festival: solidarity needs meaningful relationships
    On March 4 & 5 Bethnal Green will host a migrant-led festival fostering community and solidarity for people of all backgrounds, writes Sohail Jannesari

    Reclaiming Holloway Homes
    The government is closing old, inner-city jails. Rebecca Roberts looks at what happens next

    Intensification of state violence in the Kurdish provinces of Turkey
    Oppression increases in the run up to Turkey’s constitutional referendum, writes Mehmet Ugur from Academics for Peace