Freedom of Information

All you need to know about making freedom of information requests, a useful source for stories

FOI requests are a useful way of getting good stories from public bodies, including universities.

They can reveal facts and figures which form the basis for good stories, from the important to the hilarious.

You might just want to use a request as a fishing exercise, for example finding out how much the council is spending on entertainment. Or you might have a story already and want to find out an additional detail.


Who can you FOI

All public bodies are required by law to answer an FOI request within 20 working days.

You can find a list of bodies covered here.


What you can ask for

You can ask for any information you think a public authority may hold. The right only covers recorded information.

Your request can be in the form of a question, rather than a request for specific documents, but the authority does not have to answer your question if this would mean creating new information or giving an opinion or judgment that is not already recorded.

Some information may not be given to you because it is exempt. The two main exemptions you will come up against are:

– Personal information: you cannot FOI personal details about someone (this does not neccessarily include things like salaries).

– Cost limit: depending on the authority, if it will cost them more than either £450 or £600 they can refuse to find the information you request.


How to do it

It’s often worth saving yourself time by contacting the FOI officer of the body to ask if they hold the information you want and how you can frame your request to make it easier to get the info. They have a legal duty to help you, so don’t worry about giving the game away.

Do your research beforehand so you know it’s worth everyone’s effort – and don’t ask for too much, or you may go over the cost limit.

Making the actual request is easy. You just need to find the email address of the FOI officer by searching on the relevant website.

Then send them an email in the following format:

Dear Sir/Madam,
This is a request under the Freedom of Information Act. 

Please provide me with the total amount spent by the university on security in the academic year 2010/11.

If I can clarify my request, or narrow it to ensure it can be complied with, please contact me on this email address.

Please provide the information in electronic format.

I would appreciate it if you could reply to this email to confirm that you have received my request.

Thank you for your help,

If your request is not answered within 20 working days, send a polite but firm reminder. Always be polite with FOI officers – they are doing you a favour.

If your request is refused, you have a right to an internal review, which you should ask for if you are dissatisfied. If that is still refused, you can appeal to the Information Commissioner.

More info

If you have any questions, comment below and we will answer them for you.

FOI Man’s guide to making requests is a useful, detailed guide and his blog has a lot of what you need to know.

Heather Brooke, the reporter who fought to uncover the MPs’ expenses scandal, blogs about FOI.

The Tab Journalism