Using the Freedom of Information Act

Friday, 23 November 2007

Heather BrookeInvestigative journalist Heather Brooke told a public meeting at the Stubbing Wharfe, Hebden Bridge yesterday evening that those who vote need to be informed. To be informed, they need information. Government information needs to be brought back into the hands of the people.

Ms Brooke said that although our current Freedom of Information Act is weak law and even more weakly enforced, we should all make much more use of it than we currently do.

The meeting was organised by the Calderdale branch of the National Union of Journalists.

Heather Brooke is a journalist specialising in Freedom of Information (FOI) and has written Your Right to Know, a book designed to help citizens use their rights to gain information, and with an introduction by Ian Hislop.

Even though the law is a weak one, it is nevertheless so much better than what we had before. If public bodies wish to keep something secret, they now have to provide reasons.

Anyone can request information. Just send a letter to the Freedom of Information officer at the council, government department or other public body. The letter doesn't even have to be addressed to the FOI officer; it may actualy be addressed to anyone in the organisation.

If you are having difficulties for example, knowing exactly what part of the organisation is responsible, the organisation actually has a duty under the Act to advise and assist. Consequently, public bodies are not allowed to be unhelpful or dismissive to those seeking information.

The public body is required to make a response to a FOI request within 20 working days - invariably, the response will come on the 20th day. However, if they have any questions about the request they should contact the person making the request well before the 20 days would be up.

If the public body wishes to reject the request for information, there are several statutory reasons for doing so, and these must be stated. However, any exemption may be overcome if the need for the information is in the public interest. There is also an appeals procedure involving an Information Tribunal.

Heather Brooke told how she successfully took the BBC to such a tribunal for refusing to provide the minutes of the Governors' meeting at which they sacked Greg Dyke. She argues that where members of public bodies know they have to be accountable, they will actually make better decisions.

Examples of information she has sought are: gifts and hospitality details received by members of public bodies, registers of members' interests, lists of contracts and amounts, letters and email correspondence between public bodies and contractors.

Members of the audience asked a series of questions. One person revealed she was in charge of dealing with FOI requests for a Manchester borough council. She said that she was surprised that there were not more requests from journalists. Most came from members of the public and many were asking for information already in the public domain. Others were far to broad or unfocussed to be dealt with.

Ms Brooke told the meeting that most people involved in campaigns don't ask enough questions of public bodies. We should all ask more questions. "You don't need to be an expert. Anyone can do it."

Sample letter to use for FOI requests

Calderdale NUJ

Your Right to Know by Heather Brooke - buy now

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