Sunday 20 November 2011

Using the Freedom of Information Act (FOI)

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The Freedom of Information Act, which came in to force at the beginning of 2005, can be a powerful tool in campaigning against academies and trust schools.

It gives everyone the right to request official information held by central government departments, agencies and local bodies (such as councils, universities and schools) and requires these institutions to supply this information, subject to certain limitations (see below), free of charge.

Local successes

Local campaigners, trade unionists, academics and journalists have all been able to find out information that the local and national politicians, government officials and unaccountable “sponsors” and “partners” who are seeking to privatise our schools would rather we didn’t know about.

For instance, in Wakefield campaigners were able to find the value of the land and buildings being handed over to a trust. In Islington, a teacher at a school threatened with becoming an Academy was able – after appealing to the Information Commissioner – to force one of the proposed sponsors to divulge that its £1 million contribution to the new school was, in fact, coming from a shady “charitable” trust in Liechtenstein!

How to go about making a request

~ Find out who you should send your request to

You can telephone the organisation you want the information from and ask for the name of the person responsible for freedom of information (the “FoI official”). Or you can search the organisation’s website for its “publications scheme” which should both give details of information already published by the body and provide and give details of where to send your request. (This may be a postal and/or an email address).

Most public bodies will also have a section on the website headed Freedom of Information or FoI which should also give the address of the FoI oficial.

~ Specify what you want

Write a letter (or an email) outlining in as much detail as you can the information you are seeking. The more specific you are the better – although you do not have to give the exact title of the document you are looking for. (It is best not to cast the net too wide because a request can be refused if it costs above a laid-down amount to meet.)

Below is a slightly adapted example of an information request which was, after an appeal, ultimately successful. (Some of the details have been removed so that the Academy proposal in question cannot easily be identified.)

Dear Sir or Madam,

I wish to request the following information under the Freedom of Information Act:. If this query is too wide or too unclear, please contact me as I understand that under the act you are required to advise and assist requesters.

–   All correspondence (including e-mails) between XXXX University, XXXXXXTON Council, XXX, the XXXXXXXXXXX XX XXXXXX, the Department for Education and XXXXXXXXX XXXXX School relating to the planned co­sponsorship of an Academy on the site of the existing XXXXXX XXXXXX School.

– The names of all individuals and organisations making donations towards the £1 million that XXXX University has agreed to contribute as a sponsor of the proposed Academy.

–  Minutes of any meetings of responsible XXXXXXXX University decision-making bodies where the proposed sponsorship of the Academy was discussed

 

I look forward to receiving early confirmation that you have received this request and the information asked for within the statutory 20 working day time period..

Yours

Send off your request

Post/fax or email your request, making sure you keep a copy in case it gets “lost”. Keep a record of when you sent it and don’t forget to include your address (so you can be sent a response) and your own telephone number – in case there are any queries.

You should get a reply within 20 working days; otherwise write to the Information Commissioner. (The best way to do this is via the Commissioner’s website at http://www.ico.gov.uk/complaints/freedom_of_information.aspx .

When you get a response

The public body can either provide you with all of the information you have asked for or refuse to release some or all of it. If it is the latter it must justify its refusal in terms of one of twenty three exemptions (one of them being on the grounds of “commercial interests” outweighing the public interest in disclosure).

If your request for information is refused on this or other grounds you should appeal to the body in question, stating your grounds as clearly as possible. Your appeal will then be heard by a more senior person than the one who made the original decision.

(In the case of the request made in the letter above a refusal to divulge the name of the “secret donor” on the grounds of “confidentiality” and “commercial interest”, was appealed on the grounds that the donation of £1 million to pay the university’s sponsorship contribution was a financial rather than a commercial transaction, as defined by the FoI as one involving “buying and selling” and that the public interest in knowing the identity of the anonymous donor outweighed any consideration of confidentiality.)

What to do if your appeal is not upheld

In this case you should complain to the Information Commissioner who has the legal power to order the public body to release the information. You should do this within two months of having your appeal refused. Once again, you should give your reasons for thinking that the information should be released and attach copies of relevant correspondence.

Should the public body ignore the order, the Commissioner can take them to the high court, which could find them in contempt, fine them or even imprison the officials!

Good luck

This briefing is an adapted version of a guide by Rob Evans which appeared on the guardian.co.uk website on 30 December 2004.

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