The Freedom of Information The Freedom of Information Act requires every public authority to adopt and maintain a publication scheme which has been approved by the Information Commissioner, and to publish information in accordance with the scheme. For more information see: Model publication scheme and What information is required to publish? YOUR right of access The Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) gives everyone the right to request any recorded information held by a Parish or Town council. There is no requirement to explain why the information is being requested. There are no restrictions on age, nationality or where the person making the request lives. There is however, number of exemptions, see below. What information is covered by the Act? Almost anything the council creates, holds or processes. This includes, e-mails, letters, reports, faxes, file notes, notes of phone calls, videos, audio, digital recordings – they are all ‘information’ and potentially disclosable under the FOIA. The FOIA applies retrospectively, no matter how old the material is. Public authorities spend money collected from taxpayers, and make decisions that can significantly affect many people’s lives. Access to information helps the public make public authorities accountable for their actions and allows public debate to be better informed and more productive. What should I do before I make a request? Before you make a request, it may help to see if the information you want is already available, either on the council’s website or in a previous published document? The council must make certain information is routinely made available. Check their publication scheme (if one exists). Contact the clerk by telephone or email to see if the council has the information you want, it may save you time. Public authorities must give reasonable advice and assistance to anyone asking for information, so you should feel free to ask for help in making your request. The Freedom of Information Act is designed to increase transparency. Members of the public should be able to routinely access information that is in the public interest and is safe to disclose. Without the publication scheme, members of the public may not know what information councils have available. Making a request under the Freedom of Information Act For your request to be dealt with according to the Freedom of Information Act, you must: contact the relevant council directly; make the request in writing, either by letter or email; give your real name; and give an address to which the authority can reply. This can be a postal or email address. You do not have to: mention the Freedom of Information Act, although it may help to do so; know whether the information is covered by the Freedom of Information; or say why you want the information. Include the date on any correspondence you send and keep a copy, so you have a reliable record of your request. If you find it impossible or unreasonably difficult to make a request in writing, the council should make a reasonable adjustment for you under the Equality Act 2010. The council must consider treating a verbal request for information as if it was a valid freedom of information request. The information requested, unless exempted under the Act, must be supplied within 20 working days of being requested. A refusal to release the information must be given in writing and the reasons for refusal specified along with the applicant’s right to appeal. Unnecessary secrecy in government leads to arrogance in governance and defective decision-making. How should I word my request? All requests place some degree of demand on the council’s resources in terms of costs and staff time. However, they are expected to absorb a level of disruption to meet their underlying commitment to openness and transparency under the FOIA. The ICO have published a list of Dos and Don’ts when making a request (see below). It is recommended you read these as they will help ensure your request is clear and falls within the guidelines of the FOIA. The letter below is a sample of a request for information. It is concise and deals with a document produced for a council. The more information and details you can give such as the name of a document and the date it was published will help speed up your request. Dear Sir or Madam, Under the Freedom of Information Act, please provide me with a copy of the following: The document known as the Grievance Report published on behalf of the council in June 2016. I understand that under the Act I am entitled to a response within 20 working days of your receipt of this request. If my request is denied in whole or in part, I ask that you justify all deletions by reference to specific exemptions of the act. I will also expect you to release all non-exempt material. I reserve the right to appeal your decision to withhold any information or to charge excessive fees. I would prefer to receive the information electronically. If you require any clarification, I expect you to contact me to provide advice and assistance if you find any aspect of this FOI request problematic. Please acknowledge receipt of this request, and I look forward to receiving the information in the near future. Yours faithfully Your request can also be a question. “Re. the Grievance Report published on behalf of the council in June 2016. Please explain, why have you decided not to release this document?” Exemptions? Under the Freedom of Information Act there are a number of exemptions that can prevent the information becoming public. For example, commercially sensitive information and confidential information which fall under the Data Protection Act. However, for those exemptions where the public interest test applies, a request may only be refused if the public interest in withholding the information outweighs that in disclosing it. What happens after I make my request? The council must reply to you within 20 working days. It may: give you the information you’ve asked for; tell you it doesn’t have the information; tell you that another authority holds the information or transfer the request on your behalf; under the Freedom of Information Act, say that it has the information and offer to provide it if you pay them a fee (but there are rules about what they can charge); refuse to give you the information, and explain why; or, under the Freedom of Information Act, say that it needs more time to consider the public interest in disclosing or withholding the information, and tell you when to expect a response. This should not be later than 40 working days after the date of your request. It can only extend the time limit in certain circumstances, and it must explain why it thinks the information may be exempt. Information should be disclosed unless it falls under one of the exemptions as mentioned above. What if the council refuses to meet the request? If you believe the council has not dealt with your complaint properly, by refusing to give you the information or the explanation they give for refusal is unsatisfactory you can approach the Information Commissioner’s Office for advice on your best course of action. The Information Commissioner’s contact details are: By Post: Information Commissioner’s Office, Wycliffe House, Water Lane, Wilmslow, Cheshire SK9 5AF Telephone: 0303 123 1113 E-mail: email@example.com What can the Information Commissioner do by way of enforcement? Both the applicant and the council are informed of the Commissioner’s decision in a Decision Notice. Where appropriate the Decision Notice will instruct the council, what steps it needs to take to comply with the Act, this may include the release of information. Both the applicant and the council may appeal against a decision notice to the Information Tribunal. The Commissioner can also issue the council with an Enforcement Notice stating what steps it should take to comply with the Act. Although it is similar to a Decision Notice in some respects, the Commissioner does not need to wait to respond to a complaint from an applicant that a request has been incorrectly handled before taking this form of enforcement action. Only the council may appeal to the Information Tribunal against such a notice. DO Find out who to send your request to. If you address your request directly to the appropriate contact within the authority then you may receive a prompter response. Include your name, address and other contact details in the request. Clearly state that you are making your request under the Freedom of Information Act/Environmental Information Regulations. Be as specific as possible about the information you want rather than asking general questions. Try to include details such as dates and names whenever you can. It may also assist the authority in identifying the information if you explain the purpose behind your request. Re-read your request to check for any wording which is unclear or open to interpretation. Use straightforward, polite language; avoid basing your request or question on assumptions or opinions, or mixing requests with complaints or comments. Specify whether you have any preferences as to how you would like to receive the information, for example if you would prefer a paper copy or to receive an email. Give the authority ample opportunity to address any previous requests you have made before submitting new ones. Stay focused on the line of enquiry you are pursuing. Don’t let your attention start to drift onto issues of minor relevance. Think about whether making a request is the best way of achieving what you want. If you have an underlying complaint then it may be better to just take your complaint to the relevant ombudsman and let them investigate. Aim to be flexible if the authority advises that it can’t meet the full request on cost grounds and asks you to narrow it down. Try to work with the organisation to produce a streamlined version of the request which still covers the core information that is most importance to you. Don’t Use offensive or threatening language. Level unfounded accusations at the authority or its staff. Make personal attacks against employees. Use FOI to reopen grievances which have already been fully addressed by the authority, or subjected to independent investigation with no evidence of wrongdoing being found. Make assumptions about how the authority organises its information or tell them how to search for the information you want. Bury your request in amongst lengthy correspondence on other matters or underlying complaints Use requests as a way of ‘scoring points’ against an authority Send ‘catch-all’ requests for information (such as ‘please provide me with everything you hold about ‘x’) when you aren’t sure what specific documents to ask for. If in doubt, try searching on the authority’s website or enquiring whether any indexes and file lists are available. Alternatively, ask the authority for some advice and assistance in framing your request. Submit frivolous or trivial requests; remember that processing any information request involves some cost to the public purse. Disrupt a public authority by the sheer weight of requests or the volume of information requested. Whether you are acting alone or in concert with others, this is a clear misuse of the Act and an abuse of your ‘right to know’. Deliberately ‘fish’ for information by submitting a very broad or random requests in the hope it will catch something noteworthy or otherwise useful. Requests should be directed towards obtaining information on a particular issue, rather than relying on pot luck to see if anything of interest is revealed. Make repeat requests unless circumstances, or the information itself, have changed to the extent that there are justifiable grounds to ask for the information again. TOP Click here to download a copy of the Plain English Guide to Freedom of Information.