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Q&A: How to make a FoI request

By Channel 4 News

Updated on 22 October 2009

Channel 4 News tells you how to unearth information using the Freedom of Information act.

Documents (credit:Getty Images)

Q: What can I ask for under Freedom of Information (FoI) laws?
A: FoI laws cover a broad range of authorities and areas, so there's lots of things you can ask for. From local councillors' travel expenses, to correspondence from Gordon Brown, it is all potentially available under FoI.

However, there are various exemptions public bodies can use to reject FoI requests, so you won't get everything you ask for. Commercially sensitive information is perhaps the most commonly used exemption, along with the exclusion that relates to the relevant authority not holding the information in the first place.

Q: How do I make a request?
A: The first step is to identify which body holds the information you are seeking. More often than not this can just be checked by a simple search of the relevant body's website.

For example, if you want to ask a question about education, the body which holds the information you are looking for could be a school, local council, government agency or government department. So it's worth doing a little bit of initial research just to make sure you are asking the right people.

Q: I know who to ask, what do I do next?
A: Once you have identified which body might hold the information you require, the next step is to formally lodge a FoI request.

Every public body has a duty to make details of their FoI schemes available on their websites, and the vast majority do. They provide an email address to submit requests to, as well as an address if you wish to send a letter instead.

Once you've found out who to contact, write an email or letter in which you state that you wish to make a request under the Freedom of Information Act. Then go on to detail exactly what it is that you are after, and request that the recipient acknowledges your request so you know it has been officially logged.

Q: How should I phrase the request?
A: There are no rules over how you should word a request; but the basic principle is to try and keep FoI requests as clear and precise as possible. This makes it easier for the public body to respond, and makes sure they actually answer the right questions.

Some tips would be to include specific timescales in your request, for example, if you are asking for correspondence, limit it to a particular period. Referring to financial years rather than calendar years is also useful too, as it is how the majority of public bodies structure their systems.

You must also put you name and address on the request as a statutory requirement, otherwise it is invalid.

Q: What happens after I've made a request?
A: Soon after you have submitted your request, you should receive an acknowledgement. The relevant authority then has 20 working days to respond to this inquiry. However, this deadline can be extended, but the body should let you know about the extension in advance.

Q: Will it cost me anything?
A: No, not unless you want it to. FoI laws state that public bodies have to provide a certain amount of information "free of charge". This period covers up to three day's work, at a theoretical cost of up to £600 for the authority.

Therefore, unless your request is particularly onerous or difficult to provide, it is likely that the majority of requests can be provided without any cost to the requester. If your request is deemed to go over the "free of charge" limit, the authority will ask you whether you are prepared to pay a fee before progressing with the work.

Q: What happens if my request is rejected?
A: The relevant authority will provide you with a reason for why the request has been turned down. If you are not happy with the decision you can ask the authority to review its decision. If you are not satisfied with the outcome of the review - then you can complain to the Information Commissioner.

More information:
List of bodies covered by FoI laws
FoI Act in full
How to make an FoI request to Channel 4

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