David Higgerson suggests six questions that journalists can ask to improve the end results of a possible FOI request – or save you sending one entirely. they are:
- Is this information available elsewhere?
- Will they release the information to me without going through FOI?
- Is there another way of getting this information?
- Do I need to think about jargon in my FOI request?
- Are there examples of the information being released elsewhere?
- What reasons for refusal could a public body come up with?
It’s nice to see the post using an example from Help Me Investigate’s very early days – Heather Brooke’s FOI request to Birmingham City Council.
Cleland Thom provides another of his useful roundups on ‘right to know’ laws in the UK. This time it’s the Environmental Information Regulations (EIR), a set of regulations which work in a similar way to the Freedom of Information Act, but specifically cover information about the environment.
The regulations aren’t just useful if you’re reporting on the environment – transport, energy and other issues all touch on the areas the EIR covers.
Now the Information Commissioner has issued guidelines on the regulations (PDF) for the first time. Cleland’s rundown of the basics goes as follows:
- The ‘default position’ is that authorities must disclose information if journalists ask for it.
- The regulations make it hard for an authority refuse a information request.
- Public authorities can release business information they hold – without the business’ knowledge or consent.
- Authorities cannot ask why a journalist wants information, or be obstructive or secretive because they know what they might do with it.
- The information must be accurate and up to date.
- They must respond in 20 working days.
- The media does not have automatic right to reproduce information they’re given. Check copyright first.
- Journalists can make requests by phone. But it’s best to provide written confirmation to ensure accuracy.
- Authorities cannot ‘neither confirm nor deny’ they have information, unless it’s to do with international relations, defence, national security or public safety
- Authorities can refuse a request if it is too general – but they should then ask for a more precise request.
- Authorities can refuse to hand over information when It involves personal data; is against the public interest; is unreasonable; release WILL (not might) have an adverse effect on the course of justice, or someone’s intellectual property rights; the information is incomplete, or not available at all.
To give Cleland Thom a deserved plug, he is a consultant and trainer in media law, and is good.
More guidelines on EIR in this article in Local Government Lawyer from September 2011.
If you come across a public authority which claims that it cannot meet your FOI request because of the costs involved in redacting data, quote the following decision by the Information Tribunal (PDF) between South Yorkshire Police and the the Information Commission (Appeal Number: EA/2009/0029).
As Public Partners put it:
Under the Appropriate Limit and Fees Regulations no public authority need spend more than £600 on complying with a request, with most having a ceiling of £450 – this is called the appropriate limit. The limit is made up of the costs involved in locating, retrieving and extracting information. All the time spent on these activities can be added together at a rate of £25 per hour until the limit is reached. In this case South Yorkshire Police refused to disclose the whole of a 187 page document because redacting intelligence information line by line would cost them well over £450.
The [tribunal] ruled very firmly that the Police were wrong. Their decision couldn’t be much clearer: “we find that a public authority cannot include the time cost of redaction when estimating its costs”. All the Police’s arguments were dismissed and the rule now seems conclusive.
As the Olympic Torch Relay enters its final week Help Me Investigate has published our first ebook: 8,000 Holes: How the 2012 Olympic Torch Relay Lost its Way.
The book details how exactly the 8,000 torchbearer places were allocated – and how that process made it impossible for Olympic torch relay organisers LOCOG to meet key promises about the numbers of places available to the public, and to young people.
It builds on the work done over the past few weeks by users of HMI Olympics – and adds some new revelations alongside interviews that provide an insight into how the process affected those involved.
There are plenty of curious names in there alongside the sporting stars, celebs and genuine community heroes – including a recurring appearance of the names of telecomms execs.
You'll find the spreadsheet here.
Over on Help Me Investigate the Olympics we've posted a guide to tracing individuals. It's specifically related to the 'mystery torchbearers' who don't have a nomination story, but has wider application for tracing any individuals.