The FOI Act is an important resource for journalists; the difficulty lies in writing an effective request – and challenging a refusal
Since 2005 the Freedom of Information Act has given the public a right to information held by public authorities. A parliamentary committee that reviewed the Act last year found it had been a “significant enhancement of our democracy”. The media’s use of the Act has been an important factor.
The Act is a major resource for journalists: thousands of press stories based on FOI disclosures appear each year. Some of these are summarised in two reports* published by the Campaign for Freedom of Information.
FOI disclosures have revealed major shortcomings in the delivery of public services, shown where policies have succeeded or failed, and uncovered countless examples of wasteful spending.
The media have revealed that hundreds of thousands of NHS patients are discharged from hospital in the middle of the night; some civil servants are paid via limited companies, potentially avoiding tax; the NHS pays up to £1,600 a shift for agency nurses to replace redundant staff; that the benefits of the high-speed rail line HS2 line may have been exaggerated; and that a major government contractor compelled jobseekers to work unpaid as cleaners for more than a month under the work programme. And of course the MPs’ expenses scandal.
Almost the whole public sector – more than 100,000 bodies – are subject to the Act. It applies to government departments, local authorities, NHS bodies including GPs, schools, colleges and universities, the police, the armed forces, museums, quangos, regulators, advisory bodies, the BBC and Channel 4 (except for journalistic material), publicly owned companies, the devolved assemblies and Parliament itself.
Using the law couldn’t be simpler – all you have to do is to submit a request in writing describing the information you want and giving your name & address. The difficulty lies in drafting an effective request and, if necessary, challenging a refusal under one of the numerous, complex exemptions.
The Campaign for Freedom of Information is uniquely placed to help journalists with these issues. It has worked exclusively on FOI since 1984, playing a crucial role in persuading the government to introduce the Act, strengthening it in Parliament and fighting off later attempts to restrict it.
The Campaign closely monitors the Commissioner’s and Tribunal’s FOI decisions and helps requesters deal with unjustified refusals and obstructive public authorities.
Paul Francis, Group Political Editor at The Kent Messenger Group, has attended several of the Campaign’s courses. He says “I have benefitted hugely from the courses run by the Campaign for Freedom of Information. I recommend them without reservation for any journalist interested in developing their expertise and knowledge in this area. Maurice Frankel knows more about FOI than anyone and those attending will come away armed with new tips and strategies as well as enthusiasm for using the Act.”
NUJ Training Wales hosted ‘Using the FOI Act: Practical Training for Journalists‘ with Maurice Frankel on 11 April 2013 in Cardiff
This blog was written for the NUJ Training Wales website by Katherine Gunderson at the Campaign for Freedom of Information.