By Jenny Sims
‘Please don’t ask the government how many packets of biscuits MPs get through in a year’ Maurice Frankel, Director of the Campaign for Freedom of Information (FOI) pleaded.
Laughter among the dozen journalists on the NUJ Wales FOI Training Course. It’s not a state secret is it?
No, but it’s the sort of frivolous question that gives ammunition to those looking to tighten up use of the Freedom of Information Act – ostensibly on the grounds of wasting public money and officials’ time, Frankel warned.
He put up a slide of a Daily Mail article: ‘Jaffa Cakes are most popular snack among MPs and their staff after they spend £13,000 on them in five years.’ (A typical tabloid biscuit story).
The following slide said: ‘Tory MP calls for curbs on “bonkers” requests under the Freedom of Information Act” Wales Online 24.12.11
Simon Hart, MP for Carmarthen West and South Pembrokeshire had won parliamentary support for his ‘tightening-up’ campaign following revelations his local police force had spent £100,000 and thousands of man hours on FOI requests, some related to ‘the star signs of criminals, werewolves and yetis.’
We laughed again, but not as loudly – we got the link! The article revealed that councils in England and Wales had received more than 197,000 information requests that year costing local authorities £31.6m.
FOI Act Under Threat
The worrying fact is that the FOI Act, as it stands, is under threat. Current Government proposals include: reducing the cost limit of FOI requests and charging for Tribunal appeals. So post phone-hacking and Leveson we could be in danger of rocking the boat in the pursuit of sensational trivia, like biscuit budgets.
Anyone can make an FOI request and by law it has to be answered. The trick is though, to know how to use the Act and ask the right questions to ensure 1)You don’t get a refusal, and 2) You get the answers you want.
Confidence to Make Effective FOI Requests
Having done the course, I am now much more confident about: how to draft a request, who to send it to, what I can ask for, how long it should/could take to get a reply, how to appeal, how to complain and much more.
Many journalists have used the FOI Act brilliantly to expose national and local scandals from nuclear safety at Sellafield to unsafe ambulance delays and people wrongly labelled criminals due to inaccurate police records.
Courses like Frankel’s guarantee there’ll be a lot more.
Jenny’s blog: MediaWatch
If you’d like NUJ Training Wales to run another workshop on FOI requests please get in touch: firstname.lastname@example.org