How to get answers from Government & other public bodies

What is the Freedom of Information Act?

Freedom of Information Requests can be made of any public body:

government departments, and other public bodies and committees
local councils
schools, colleges and universities
health trusts, hospitals and doctors’ surgeries
publicly owned companies
publicly funded museums
the police

You can ask any information of these public bodies. Public bodies use pubic money and you have an entitlement to find out how it is being used. For example, the expenses scandal broke because of Freedom of Information requests –used well they can be powerful.

You can write to any public body directly. Contact details for doing so will be available on the organisation’s website. You can also make your request public by using the WhatDoTheyKnow website, asking your question through this site will get your request to the right place and also be made public as will the answer. check it out to see the sort of things that have been asked.

Why FOI post on a blog about consumer rights?
Well, because as well as it being your right to find out information about how your money is spent, it can also help give you information you may need to strengthen your complaint. For example asking how many staff are meant to be on duty in ward between set times on set days if you want to complain about understaffing in a ward and have no idea how many staff there should be on duty.

Responses 
Public bodies must respond within 20 days. There are exceptions to providing information. Some sensitive information isn’t available to members of the public. If this applies, the organisation must tell you why they can’t give you some or all of the information you requested or it might ask you to be more specific so they can provide just the information you need.

An organisation can also refuse your Freedom of Information (FOI) request if it will cost more than £450 (£600 for central government) to find and extract the information. That includes administration time. If you have more than one question send them as separate requests.

If the body has not sent you their response within the 20 working days you can report it to the Information Commissioner’s Office.

Tips
1) Don’t ask for qualitative information. e.g. why did the organisation make a decision? You would need to ask for copies of meetings regarding xyz and then see for yourself how the decision was made.

2) Keep a note of the date you asked the FOI and chase on the 21st working day threatening to report to the ICO if you haven’t had a reply.

3) When you email an FOI you should receive an email saying that your email has been received, if you do not receive this, follow up to ensure that it has been received and get a reference number.

4) When you receive your confirmation, keep their reference number should you need to follow up if you haven’t had a response then you will need this.

5) Check the public body’s website for the information, if the information is available and online the public body will send you a link it is not obliged to answer detailed questions or post you the information if it readily available.

6) Follow the complaint procedure if you do not agree with a decision not to provide you with the information. This will be using the internal complaints procedure explaining clearly your arguments for why you don’t agree. If you remain dissatisfied you can take the matter to the ICO.

Real examples of FOIs I have made

CCTV parking offences. A couple of years ago I asked how much money was generated from the car in our borough which sits at the end of a road and “catches” people turning left. (Which in my humble opinion is utterly pointless- if they turn right they can turn right again instantly and turn round in the short in/out road to a car park causing more disturbance to pedestrians than turning left). I was given piles of information! Some I wasn’t given because the work was up to tender and therefore deemed as “sensitive”. It was an incredibly high amount which more than paid for the staff and vehicles. Unfortunately this was before discussions and rulings about CCTV being income generating…

Police. Last year someone was putting stickers on keyholes giving the number of a locksmith. This number was unobtainable. Stories about this happening previously in other boroughs had been in the media over the last year or so. The story went that burglars were putting on these stickers and if in the following one or two days they were still up then the house was empty and could be burgled. The local paper ran this story, Facebook posts were shared all over the place and a head teacher of at least one school sent this warning home. People were very worried about a rise in crime and violence with these robberies.

I emailed our local police. Firstly I asked if there was truth in this story and if so what they were doing about it and why they weren’t warning residents I was told that actually there was no truth in the story whatsoever. A neighbourhood police officer had actually caught someone putting the stickers on doors and confiscated the roll to prompt his boss to ‘phone the police officer. He duly did so. This was a new company who thought that this was a good idea to drum up business…. before their ‘phone lines were in use. I don’t suppose I need to state my opinion on that!

However, people seemed certain that they were hearing of far more burglaries than the previous year so I asked some FOIs regarding the number of burglaries in the previous 8 weeks and for the same period in the previous year, how many were with violence and roughly day or night. There was no increase, only one with violence and that one they thought was more suspicious. The media and people’s perception (perhaps with so much social media activity) was unfounded. I was therefore able to share all the facts on Facebook local area group pages, on my page etc., and alleviate some fears. The local paper never printed the correct story despite requests by the police. So an answer to an FOI can also stop you sending in a complaint if it gives you different/more information.

Department of Work and Pensions. I am unfortunate enough to have Iain Duncan Smith as my MP. Luckily I have never had to meet him to ask for him to help me with anything. However, I took it upon myself to challenge him regarding food banks, cost of living and ATOS. I went twice and recorded the events. The write ups can be found here and the clips on my YouTube channel Helen Dewdney. I asked various questions of the DWP, some I forwarded to activists, and others I shared on my Facebook page, such as the number of verbal and physical threats made to staff.

For further information about how you can use the information you glean to pursue complaints see the book.

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