What is a freedom of information (FOI) request?

We look at the mechanism citizens can use to hold public bodies to account

A person rifling for files in an old-style filing cabinet

The Freedom of Information Act 2000 gives every UK citizen the right to request certain information held by the public bodies and organisations, including the government, regulators and any public service companies, such as the BBC.

The process for this is known as a freedom of information (FOI) request, which involves a formal written submission and an outline of the specific scope of the data you are looking for.

Types of information can vary depending on the organisation you are submitting the request to. Citizens can request data relating to financial matters, such as how an organisation spends its money, information about meetings, statistical data, or internal and external communications.

First brought in by the Labour government under Tony Blair, the FOI Act functions as a way for ordinary citizens to hold public bodies to account. It legally requires organisations to routinely publish information about their activities to improve transparency and accountability, while the FOI request can be used to surface data not given voluntarily.

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Organisations must respond to an FOI within 20 working days, although they are allowed to refuse the request provided they give a detailed explanation of their decision.

FOI requests are particularly useful for journalists, as it's often the case that public bodies will only publish what they need to and keep more sensitive information hidden. A famous example of this in action was the case in 2009 when several FOI requests to government departments ultimately unearthed an expenses scandal among MPs.

Why would I make a Freedom of Information request?

Public authorities are required to disclose information through an FOI request, and therefore it's not necessary to justify the request.

In most cases, FOI requests are submitted in order to collect information that's useful for the public to know, or as part of wider research into public sector activities.

You're able to request any information the public body holds. That means any data on printed documents, spreadsheets, images, audio recordings, email communications, or even instant messages sent on work devices can all fall under the scope of an FOI request. The request is, therefore, able to tap into a wealth of public data, although anything classed as personal information is off-limits, barring exceptional public interest justification.

The mechanism is incredibly popular as a result. According to official figures, more than 45,415 FOI requests were submitted to authorities across the UK throughout 2016.

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However, there are a number of exemptions that limit the scope of an FOI request. Some of these include a block on any information relating to the Royal Family and anything considered to be sensitive data relating to political parties. Anything considered to be commercially sensitive data or related to national security is also exempt from any request.

A request may be rejected entirely if it does not fall within the terms of the Freedom of Information Act. This is normally the result of a request being too costly to process, either financially or in terms of time. Most public authorities are allotted a maximum of 450, or 18 hours of work, to cover the cost of processing a request, although this rises to 600 and 24 hours of work for central government departments and the Houses of Parliament.

If your FOI request is rejected, the officer handling your case is obliged to explain in clear terms the reasons why, and offer you a path to dispute the decision.

Other reasons for rejecting a request may include if the request has already been made in the past by another individual or if the request is vexatious.

How do you file a Freedom of Information request?

An FOI request is fairly simple to make. You need to address a letter, email, fax or online form to the public body you want the information from, providing your name, address, and a detailed description of what information you're after. It's important to define the scope of your enquiry, so the body doesn't come back with either insufficient or far too much detail.

You can ask for the information to be provided in either paper format, large print, audio format, or digital format. Bear in mind that while FOI requests are free, you might be asked to pay postage fees, or photocopying costs.

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