Right to Know Day

Wednesday 28 September 2011 was International Right to Know Day.  On 1 January 2005 a general right to access information held by a wide range of public bodies came into force.  This general right is enshrined in a number of pieces of both primary and secondary legislation and it is an important right in the armoury of the people to hold those in power to account and one to be celebrated.

The move internationally is certainly towards a position of greater transparency in government and public life.  The FOI legislation in the UK has been used to effect major changes in the way politics has been done.  One such example of where FOI was used to uncover immoral practices was in the MPs expenses scandal.  It is easy to overlook that had it not been for a simple FOI request that the scale of MPs claiming expenses for things they really ought to have not.  This scandal has resulted in members of the House of Lords and former MPs spending time in prison for unlawful practices uncovered through the examination of FOI disclosures and has resulted in greater transparency in expenses across the public sector generally.  This is just one example of many where FOI has been used as a force for good.

There have been the rather strange requests as well which cast FOI in a bad light and show that it can be abused by people.  There have been requests for information relating to plans held by the public authority in question to deal with a Zombie invasion.  While, the person behind the original request might well have had a legitimate personal fear about such an invasion and wanted to know that the authority was ready to deal with such an eventuality it did result in a large number of “copycat” requests where it was clear the request was not really serious at all.  However, there does exist within the FOI legislation ways to deal with such requests so as not to allow them to cause a drain on public resources.

On the whole it is hard to argue that FOI is a bad thing or that it should be scrapped.  Yesterday was a good time to remind people of their information access rights.  Your rights to access information held by public authorities in the UK can be found in:

The all provide different rights to access different information and all have a presumption of disclosure written into them.  This means that the authority has to show justifiable grounds, as permitted in the relevant legislation, as to why it is not disclosing the information requested by you.

Making requests under these pieces of legislation is easy and is made even easier through sites like What Do They Know (WDTK).  However, it is important to remember that rights do come with responsibilities.  The single most important responsibility that comes along with these rights is to use them sensibly and not to abuse them.

Always do your research first!  Is the information you requested already in the public domain?  If it is and you can be expected to access it reasonably then the public authority is not required to provide it to you through the legislation.  By ensuring you do your research first you save valuable time and public money by not submitting requests unnecessarily.  Although the authority is not obliged to provide information already available publically to you they are still required to respond telling you this.  It does take time and money to respond to such requests.

Always look at the authority’s publication scheme before making a request.  The scheme may tell you how you can get the information you want or where you can find it.  Again, this saves making a pointless request and saves on both time and public money.

Don’t just fire your request off as soon as you have the idea.  Think about it carefully.  Make sure you draft the request in a way that makes it clear what information you want from the public authority.  This avoids having your request refused on cost grounds, makes sure you get the information you actually want and also means you won’t receive lots of information you don’t really want.  Requests that are poorly drafted and too wide may result in delays as the authority seeks clarification from you or in the request being refused as it is too costly to comply with.  Maybe try drafting your request and then going back to it the next day.  Read it through with fresh eyes and see if you could tidy it up before sending it.  Also think about who you are sending the request to.  Are they really the most likely authority to hold the information?  Don’t just send it off to everyone who might hold it.  This causes a drain on public resources.  Of course it might be perfectly legitimate to make the same or a similar request to multiple public authorities – just don’t do it for the sake of doing it.

Contacting the authority before submitting it might save you some time.  FOI Officers are generally very helpful and experienced.  They might be able to tell you before you make your request that they’re not the best people to ask and who might be instead or might even know that the information you want is to be published soon.

Another good thing to do is to look at disclosure logs and WDTK.  While not every authority operates a disclosure log and not all requests appear on WDTK you might find the information you are seeking has already been published by the authority through one of these two sources.  This saves you the 20 day wait for a response and the authority from having to respond to your request.  Again, saving time and public money!  It may be the case that some of the information you want appears in one of these two locations and by locating this it means you reduce the drain on resources by the authority having to consider whether it is required to disclose it again to you.

If you need advice then the Office Scottish Information Commissioner and the Information Commissioner’s Office both operate advice services and they can advise you on all aspects of FOI from how to make a valid request to what to do next.  The staff at both organisations are very helpful and knowledgeable.  If they don’t know the answer or have it to hand they’ll go away and find it for you always getting back to you as quickly as possible.

You should contact the Scottish Information Commissioner about requests made under the following pieces of legislation:

  • Freedom of Information (Scotland) Act 2002
  • Environmental Information (Scotland) Regulations 2004

The Information Commissioner’s Office can help you with queries about requests made under the following pieces of legislation:

  • Data Protection Act 1998
  • Freedom of Information Act 2000
  • Environmental Information Regulations 2004

The respective websites of these organisations are full of useful information and always worth a visit if you need to know something.  You’ll find all sorts of guidance documents, advice pages and information that will help you at all stages in your request from making the request initially to applying to the Information Commissioners for a decision where necessary.

Please do use your information access rights, but use them responsibly and don’t abuse them.

Happy (belated) International right to know day!

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