Freedom of Information

Use FOIA now!

THE HIGHWAYS Agency "is the worst. They refused to tell me their Freedom of Information Officer's name. They're the worst public agency I've had to deal with. I did eventually get it."

Welcome the strangely secretive world of the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA - pronounced "foyer"), the subject of September's LFB meeting.

Mark Watts, Heather Brooke and chair Dave Rotchelle
Mark Watts, Heather Brooke and chair Dave Rotchelle

Our speakers were Heather Brooke - quoted above - and Mark Watts. Heather teaches FOIA on NUJ Training courses, and runs the Your Right to Know website (www.yrtk.org). Mark Watts of the FOIA Centre (www.foiacentre.com) has researched for World in Action and exposed Jonathan Aitken's plain brown envelope dealings and "Benji the Binman".

Only one member of the audience had already done a FOIA request. Using the Act generates 100 national and regional stories a month that would otherwise never have come out, despite FOIA's shortcomings. The UK Embassy in Poland's massive underestimate of the number of expected Polish immigrants and £6 million wasted on stalled police force mergers are just two recent examples. "An awful lot of revelatory material [is] being released. I would urge you to be using the Act," Mark said, advising freelances to get those FOIA requests in - while we still can. A secret consultation is in progress which may restrict use of the Act by allowing bodies to fiddle the calculation of requests' costs and thus deny more.

FOIA applies to parliament, local councils, the police, the National Health Service including NHS GPs and dentists, grant-maintained schools and numerous obscure quangos, but not to the security services. The Department for Constitutional Affairs site www.dca.gov.uk/foi has a FOIA page telling you who it covers.

Public bodies have to tell you whether they hold requested information or not. But it's difficult to know what to ask for. "Everything has been obscured for so long it's difficult to know what goes on even in a Mayor's office - how much is spent on tea and biscuits," says Heather, whose advice is to ring up their FOI officer for an informal chat about what categories of info they have in what format, and then make your actual request. Start relationships with FOI officers. They have a statutory duty to help you formulate your request.

Nothing in the law says you have to give your real name. Mark makes a lot of requests on behalf of newspapers - if the government knows a request comes from a journalist, they tend to manage the disclosure by press-releasing it to everyone in advance.

There are "enormous problems in practice with FOIA - don't give up with it", says Mark. He added there there has been something of a clampdown of late on Benji the Binman-style "dark arts"of journalism, "phone screwing" and hiring private detectives to get phone and bank records. "Newspapers are going to have to stop 'dark arts' and return to proper journalism - which is where the FOIA comes in".

The audience felt FOIA had a role in reinvigorating investigative journalism and supporting the NUJ's Journalism Matters campaign, with calls for the Branch to prepare a resolution for next Spring's Annual Delegate Meeting, aimed at strengthening the FOIA.

The next FOIA course is on 28 September at Headland House. An updated edition of Heather Brookes' book Your Right to Know is published on 1 November.

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