Freedom of Information: What you need to know

Posted on November 22, 2011

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What is the Freedom Of Information Act 2000?

It was an Act of Parliament that was passed in 2000, but it didn’t come into force until 2005. The main aim of this act, is to make information from public services or authorities much more accessible to the public. However, it’s important to note that when it comes to the Act, there are some exceptions. It should also be noted that the Act covers England, Wales and Northern Ireland. A separate and similar Act covers Scotland. Environmental information is covered in the Environmental Information Regulations.

Who can you send a request to?

Over 100,000 public bodies are covered by the Act. These include central government agencies and departments, local councils, the NHS, state schools as well as others.

What can you request?

You can request any information held by public authorities. The Act applies to paperwork, videos, computer files… any record the public authority holds.

But it’s not all as easy as that. There are 23 exemptions to the Act (a list is available here). A request is only free if it costs the body less than £450, or £600 for central government. It takes time. A request must be dealt with within 20 working days. However, it is not uncommon for a request to take longer, for the body to request more information from you, and to request more time.

So how is it useful to a journalist?

Laura Oliver for journalism.co.uk shows resourcefulness with her blog about how to use the website WhatDoTheyKnow.com. What Do They Know is a publically accessible website detailing Freedom of Information requests and is easily searchable. Laura explains: “This information is, of course, publicly available, so any journalist can use it, but setting up feeds to bring the information to you will help you get there quickly and efficiently.” This becomes a quick and easy way to access stories. She also says: “Most public authorities have these logs on their websites – try looking for a specific FOI section on site or look for “disclosure log” and the authority’s name on a search engine.” Some great tips, and some potential stories.

David Higgerson suggests we, as journalists, should be a litte wary before submitting an FOI request. He says on his blog: “On one hand, it can be a way of getting a story which you otherwise wouldn’t get, but is there a danger that we default to using FOI too quickly?  If we do use FOI too often, is there a danger press officers will just start telling us to ask for everything under FOI?” He suggests we should hover over the send button, and ask ourselves the following six questions:

  • Is this information available elsewhere?
  • Will they release the information to me without going through FOI?
  • Is there another way of getting this information?
  • Do I need to think about jargon in my FOI request?
  • Are there examples of the information being released elsewhere?
  • What reasons for refusal could a public body come up with?

The Act will not give a journalist a quick turn around on a story. With a statuatory 20 working days before an answer must be given, a FOI request is unlikely to be delivered before a short deadline. Building an investigative report, the Act could be a journalist’s greatest weapon, but in every day reporting, it’s not much use.

My experience:

I recently sent out two FOI requests. One was made to Cardiff and Vale University Hospital Board and the other to South Wales Fire Department.

The request made to Cardiff and Vale University Hospital Board (UHB) was a request for information about alcohol poisoning and hypothermia after reading a report that women were at most risk during the winter months when they go out on the town wearing next to nothing. I wanted to find out how bad this situation was in Cardiff. This is a copy of the email I sent:

Dear Sir/Madam

Per the Freedom of Information Act 2000 I would like to request a copy of the following information in digital form (.xls preferred):

The number of hypothermia cases diagnosed between November 2010-January 2011 in women admitted to A&E, and the number of women diagnosed with Alcohol Poisoning in the same time frame with a connection to hypothermia, admitted through A&E. If possible, I would like this information broken down into month and age brackets (under 18; 18-25; 25-30; 30-39; 40-49; 50-59; 60+). I would also like to know if there were any fatalities during this time frame. I would also like to know if this is an increase or decrease than in previous years.

Please let me know if I need to make my request more concise and easier to process.

Please send the digital file to amyxxxxxxx@xx.com

Kind regards,

Amy Smith

12 days later I received a phone call from a member of staff at Cardiff and Vale UHB who wanted me to clarify whether I meant admitted or presented. She explained to me that admitted was probably not what I meant, but protocol meant she had to ring me. She explained to me the difference and it turned out that she was correct: I had meant presented. A further four days later, I had the information I had requested in my inbox.

Unfortunately, this was not the information I was expecting, but that in itself became the data news story I required. You can see that here.
The second FOI request I made was far more straight forward. I sent the following email to South Wales Fire Department:

Dear Sir or Madam,

Per the 2000 Freedom of Information Act, I am requesting a digital copy of the following information:

A breakdown of the types of calls and the amount of call-outs the fire and rescue service in South Wales received in the city of Cardiff on 5th November 2006 – 2011 (if this data is available for 2011 yet).

Please send the digital file to amyxxxxxxx@xx.com

Let me know if this is possible, and if not, what improvements to my request I can make to facilitate it.

Kind regards,

Amy Smith

The following day I received an email of receipt, saying that my request was being processed, they also gave me an email address to contact if I had further inquiries and a FOI reference number. 4 weeks later (22 working days) I received all of the information I had requested. The exact file I received is outlined below.

The FOI requests I sent were not too problematic, though to the UHB I request a .xls file and I simply received a .pdf with my email pasted into it broken down with their answers to each question. Unfortunately I can’t share that file with you as it’s been protected and can’t be uploaded. To further elaborate on my new story as the data was unexpected from the UHB, I sent a further FOI request to them. This requested the same information but for the four years preceding my original request. This way, I would have five years of data to back up my findings. This request was returned with all the appropriate information within a week.

I was satisfied with the response I received to my requests, though, as I concluded above, these methods are useless for quick journalism. I found myself quickly getting into the mindset of ‘I’ll send an FOI request’ instead of doing any research. Fortunately I was conscious of this and avoided falling into that pit of lazy journalism.

Post updated: 28th December (added ‘My experience’ section)
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