Justice CommitteeWritten evidence from Paul Gibbons

Executive Summary

1. The Freedom of Information Act (FOI) works very effectively. In my opinion it appropriately balances the right to know with the need to ensure that public bodies can deliver public services effectively.

2. The Act has clearly, though to varying degrees, met its objectives of improving openness and transparency, increasing accountability, improving decision-making and supporting public engagement in decision-making.

3. The biggest obstacles to the effectiveness of FOI are a lack of cultural change within the public sector, epitomised by public statements from senior figures attacking the legislation, and irresponsible use of the Act by a small minority of requesters. Both should be more effectively countered in future.

4. I have made some recommendations which the Committee may wish to consider as part of its post-legislative assessment of the Act:

Recommendation 1: There must be more leadership shown in Whitehall promoting the benefits of FOI and challenging negative perceptions.

Recommendation 2: users of the legislation should be encouraged to follow best practice, perhaps set out in a formal or informal Code of Practice (a “highway code” for FOI requesters).

Recommendation 3: there should be a transparency impact assessment (similar to a privacy impact assessment in Data Protection) of proposed amendments to FOI to ensure that existing levels of access to public information are at least maintained.

Recommendation 4: the Act should be amended so as to ensure that the Information Commissioner can prosecute offenders under s.77 of the Act up to three years after the offence occurred.

Recommendation 5: reporting statistics on FOI compliance should be made mandatory for all public authorities, and consideration given to a requirement to quote FOI in requests to ensure consistency in management and reporting.

Recommendation 6: public authorities should be encouraged to proactively disclose as much information as possible, and to publish responses to requests via a Disclosure Log, but the requirement to maintain a central Publication Scheme should be dropped.

Recommendation 7: section 14 of the Act, covering “vexatious” requests, should be reviewed and possibly clarified. This might be linked to the idea of a Code of Practice for requesters.

Recommendation 8: maintain existing cost restrictions on FOI requests.

Recommendation 9: amendments to FOI must be considered in the context of the Government’s wider transparency agenda and must be consistent with the aims of that agenda.

1. Introduction

1.1. I have been working as a practitioner, responsible for implementing the legislation and answering requests made under its provisions, for several years. Between February 2001 and November 2003 I served as Parliamentary Records Manager, helping both Houses to prepare for the Act coming into force. Since then I have worked for the Greater London Authority (for 6 years), an NHS Trust and the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS).

1.2. In September 2010, I created the weblog and site http://FOIMan.com. The aim of the site is to give those interested in FOI an inside perspective on the legislation and related issues.

1.3. My evidence reflects my experience as both a practitioner of FOI in a range of public authorities and of my engagement with users of the legislation through social media. I am submitting this evidence in my own capacity—it is not intended as an official submission of any other body.

2. Does the Freedom of Information Act work effectively and is it operating in the way that it was intended to?

2.1. In my opinion, the FOI Act works very effectively. The long title of the Act is “An Act to make provision for the disclosure of information held by public authorities or by persons providing services for them…”;1 there is little doubt that vast quantities of information have been disclosed since the general right of access came into force on 1 January 2005.

2.2. One way to assess whether the Act works effectively is to look at the way it was intended to work. As the Ministry of Justice has pointed out,2 the Act had four main aims:

to improve openness and transparency of public bodies;

to make public bodies more accountable;

to improve decision-making; and

to allow the public to engage in decision-making.

2.3. Research suggests that the Act has succeeded in making public authorities more open and transparent.3

2.4. It is also clear that public bodies are now more accountable.4 One important point for the Committee to consider is the importance of the general right of access under FOI in holding public bodies to account. Public authorities decide what to disclose pro-actively. The general right of access allows members of the public to choose what must be disclosed, with limited restrictions.

2.5. Studies have struggled to find evidence that decision-making has been improved by FOI.5 This is, by its very nature, difficult to prove. My own view is that it is inevitable that the nature of decision-making will have changed to a degree, if only because officials and politicians are aware that there is more potential for outside scrutiny. To give an example, politicians and senior officials must surely consider more carefully what expenses they will claim now that they know their claims may well be made public, and have seen the reaction to the disclosure of MPs’ expenses claims in 2009. Similarly, it must focus the minds of officials making decisions involving major expenditure.

2.6. Some have suggested that FOI has had a “chilling effect” on decision-making and record keeping.6 The Information Tribunal has been sceptical of this view.7 It has argued that effective record keeping is a management issue and should be reinforced through management guidance.8 There is also evidence from other jurisdictions that have been subject to a form of FOI for longer than the UK that the “chilling effect” may not be as significant as some suggest.9 There are two main reasons proposed for this. Firstly, there is an element of self-preservation involved—officials want to record decisions in order to be able to defend their actions at a later stage. Secondly, the chances of any particular document being disclosed out of all the documents created by public authorities are slim, so employees still do not necessarily expect a particular document to be disclosed.10 In my own experience, there is little evidence that colleagues have stopped putting things in writing as a result of FOI.

2.7. As a professional records manager, my experience is that whilst there have been some improvements in recording decision-making processes, for example through clearer demarcation of “closed” items discussed in committee meetings, overall records management has not dramatically improved as a result of FOI. As before, there are “islands” of good practice focussed on core organisational functions, but there is a mixed picture in other areas. Largely this is because outside central government there has been relatively little investment in records management,11 or in ensuring that systems, for example accounting systems, can be readily interrogated. This means that retrieving information to answer FOI requests can take longer than it would do if systems were better designed. It also means that there is a higher likelihood of requests being turned down on grounds of cost than there would be if record keeping had been improved.

2.8. There is evidence that FOI has allowed the public to better engage with decision-making. The Ministry has acknowledged this.12 One recent example was the campaign by disability campaigners against the Welfare Reform Bill currently before Parliament. The campaign used responses to the Department’s consultation on the Bill, obtained through an FOI request, to produce a report which was then widely circulated through social media and other mechanisms.13 Recent research into FOI in local government suggests that such use of FOI by NGOs is common.14 The National Council for Voluntary Organisations (NCVO) has produced guidance for such organisations to encourage their use of FOI.15 The guide contains a number of case studies demonstrating how groups have used FOI effectively.16

2.9. There is clear evidence that FOI has met its objectives. Any proposal to reform FOI must be careful not to place the progress that has been made to date under threat.

2.10. One significant limit on the Act’s effectiveness in my opinion is the lack of cultural change within the public sector. It is well known that many public employees and politicians are cynical of the benefits of FOI and critical of its cost.

2.11. There is a lack of leadership in the public sector championing FOI. I will quote below a series of public statements on FOI from influential figures. If this is the attitude of senior officials, it is not surprising if these views pervade the public sector:

2.11.1.Former Prime Minister Tony Blair wrote in his memoirs: ““Freedom of Information. Three harmless words. I look at those words as I write them, and feel like shaking my head till it drops off my shoulders. You idiot. You naive, foolish, irresponsible nincompoop. There is really no description of stupidity, no matter how vivid, that is adequate. I quake at the imbecility of it”.17

2.11.2.Former Cabinet Secretary Lord Gus O’Donnell in an interview with the Times: “Freedom of Information that allows the public to ask questions about things is fine, but the bit that I’m really against in freedom of information is that bit where it reduces the quality of our governance…I want Cabinet to have real discussions, for people to be able to say, ‘I disagree with this policy’”.18

2.11.3.The Leader of Hampshire County Council: “I no longer believe that my staff should be spending their precious time on such spurious requests. I believe we should explain to the inquirer at the outset the lengths to which we will have to go to get the information and, if they persist, we should have the courage of our convictions and refuse to answer the inquiry. It should be left to the information commissioner to adjudicate as to whether the inquiry is a legitimate cost on the public purse and in the public interest”. [note that the Leader is effectively urging his staff not to comply with the requirements of the Act].19

2.11.4.The Registrar of the University of Warwick wrote in Times Higher Education: “Why does FOI legislation include universities within its remit when it so obviously undermines the whole idea of universities being independent, self-governing organisations?”20

2.11.5.Universities UK, the body representing Vice-Chancellors of universities across the country, recently said in a blog post: “We don’t think Parliament envisaged how it would apply within universities, and especially to university research, when the Act was passed in 2000. In any case, since that time, the proportion of funding universities get from public sources has fallen considerably, and will continue to fall, making their inclusion within the definition of ‘public authorities’ all the more strange”.21

2.12. Although everyone is entitled to their opinion, there is a damaging drip, drip, drip of negative statements by senior officials and politicians about FOI which are not robustly challenged. This allows the belief to grow that Ministers sympathise with such views, undermining the work of practitioners to promote compliance with the legislation. The public nature of criticism seems out of proportion to the way such matters are normally debated by senior and influential people.
Recommendation 1: There must be more leadership shown in Whitehall promoting the benefits of FOI and challenging negative perceptions.

2.13. Linked to these criticisms of the Act, and threatening its future, is the irresponsible use of FOI by a small minority of those submitting requests. Examples include a requester submitting the same request to over 1400 public authorities, and individuals using the legislation as a tool to harass public employees. In my view, these activities need to be robustly confronted, but this need not require significant legislative change. Users of the legislation need to be better educated about the impact of their use of the Act and encouraged to use it responsibly. I have produced a Guide to Making Responsible FOI Requests which is available via my website and has proved useful to a number of campaigners and others who use FOI (I am enclosing a copy as supplementary evidence).22 It may be helpful for a Code of Practice along similar lines to be produced and widely publicised. Potentially, compliance with the Code could then be taken into account by the Information Commissioner, particularly where an authority considers a request to be vexatious.
Recommendation 2: users of the legislation should be encouraged to follow best practice, perhaps set out in a formal or informal Code of Practice (a “highway code” for FOI requests).

3. What are the strengths and weaknesses of the Freedom of Information Act?

3.1. The strengths of the legislation are the presence of an independent ombudsman, in the form of the Information Commissioner, and the requirement to balance the public interest of disclosing or withholding information when considering the application of an exemption. It is important that any proposed amendments to the legislation do not diminish the powers of the Information Commissioner or strengthen the existing exemptions (which are adequate). Any change should not disproportionately reduce the level of access available to requesters. This is particularly important at this time when there is intense scrutiny of and debate over public services. It is essential that members of the public, the media and campaigners remain able to effectively scrutinise public sector decision-making through FOI.
Recommendation 3: there should be a transparency impact assessment (similar to a privacy impact assessment in Data Protection) of proposed amendments to FOI to ensure that existing levels of access to public information are at least maintained.

3.2. Practitioners can find it difficult to persuade colleagues, especially senior colleagues, of the need to comply with FOI. At the moment, the sanctions for non-compliance are limited. One obvious weakness is the limitation on the offence of altering or destroying information at s.77 of the Act. At present, this can only be enforced by the Information Commissioner within 6 months of the offence occurring. In practice, it may well not be evident that an offence has occurred within this timescale.
Recommendation 4: the Act should be amended so as to ensure that the Information Commissioner can prosecute offenders under s.77 of the Act up to three years after the offence occurred.

3.3. Reporting on FOI is inconsistent. Central Government reports statistics on FOI quarterly and annually. This does not happen routinely in other parts of the public sector. The Information Commissioner has indicated that he will keep authorities under review that are regularly failing to meet the requirement to answer requests within 20 working days. However, this will not always be evident as reporting is not consistent. I would suggest that all public authorities be required to publish statistics on FOI compliance, perhaps as part of existing annual reporting processes. This would enable the public to see which authorities are meeting their FOI obligations. Consideration might also be given to a requirement for requesters to quote the Act in requests to bring clarity to the management and reporting of FOI requests.
Recommendation 5: reporting statistics on FOI compliance should be made mandatory for all public authorities, and consideration given to a requirement to quote FOI in requests to ensure consistency in management and reporting.

3.4. Freedom of Information has led to more pro-active publication of information. However, Publication Schemes are an outdated concept. They are rarely looked at by users of the Act, who are more inclined to use search engines to find information. A list of information that authorities are required to make available would be more useful, without stipulating where the information should be placed on the authority’s website. Authorities should be required to publish responses to FOI requests in a Disclosure Log.
Recommendation 6: public authorities should be encouraged to proactively disclose as much information as possible, and to publish responses to requests via a Disclosure Log, but the requirement to maintain a central Publication Scheme should be dropped.

3.5. In order to address the legitimate concerns of public authorities, it would be helpful for the provisions relating to vexatious and repetitious requests at section 14 of the Act to be clarified. However, any proposal to amend this section should be careful not to restrict legitimate and reasonable enquiries. It might be helpful to link the concept of vexatious requests to a failure to follow accepted best practice as set out in a Code of Practice.
Recommendation 7: section 14 of the Act, covering “vexatious” requests should be clarified. This might be linked to the idea of a Code of Practice for requesters.

3.6. It has been suggested that the cost of compliance with FOI is a matter for concern.23 It is true that answering some FOI requests can be time consuming. However, many FOI requests can be answered relatively quickly. Some of those that are time consuming have led to important revelations. The Committee should also be wary of figures quoted for the cost of FOI,24 as there is currently no agreed methodology for assessing this, and published estimates such as the Frontier Economics report of 2007 have often attracted criticism.25 Such estimates rarely take into account the benefits of FOI which are harder to quantify.26 The existing fees regulations27 help authorities to manage FOI requests effectively, by allowing them to refuse the most onerous of requests. However, changes along the lines suggested by some practitioners28 could disproportionately affect legitimate research and scrutiny of the public sector at a sensitive time.
Recommendation 8: maintain existing cost restrictions on FOI requests.

3.7. I welcome Government proposals to improve transparency more generally. Any proposals to amend FOI must be considered in this context.29
Recommendation 9: amendments to FOI must be considered in the context of the Government’s wider transparency agenda and must be consistent with the aims of that agenda.

January 2012



How to make responsible and effective FOI requests

The Freedom of Information Act 2000 (FOI) and Environmental Information Regulations 2004 (EIR) introduced a right to information held by public authorities which came fully into force in 2005. However, like all rights, it should be used responsibly by those who exercise it.

Here, FOI Man, a public sector employee with several years’ experience of advising on and answering FOI and EIR requests, outlines the best way to make sure you get the most out of both regimes without creating unnecessary burdens on public authorities.

Except where otherwise specified below, FOI is used to denote both pieces of legislation.

Why should I care?

FOI is a right. Full stop. You absolutely have the right to ask a public authority for any information that you like. Unless your request is invalid, vexatious, covered by one of the exemptions, or the authority doesn’t hold it, they have to make the information available to you. To an extent, you’re even allowed to dictate in which format they should provide it to you. So you have the power.

But should you use that power? And if you do use it, should you consider the impact it might have on the public authority concerned? In these times of cuts and mass redundancies, is it right that scarce resources are spent digging around for information that you might have lost interest in by the time you get a response? And if you’re a campaigner, trying to engage your local politicians, do you really want to risk getting on the wrong side of them through your use of FOI? Is it a Pyrrhic victory if you get your information at the cost of officials’ time that could have been spent on doing the things you’re campaigning for?

And there could be implications further down the road if we don’t use FOI responsibly. In other countries where FOI has been in place for years, enthusiastic early adoption has often led to a backlash from politicians and the courts. In Ireland, a prohibitive fees regime was introduced; in New Zealand, the courts considering appeals began to interpret exemptions restrictively. Over here, we’ve seen an attempt by politicians to remove themselves from FOI (thankfully rewarded with contempt from all sides), and there are regular calls from senior officials in various parts of the public sector for their particular area to be excluded from the legislation.

It’s really easy to fire off an email asking for information. You can even send it to several thousand public authorities in one go. But be aware of the resource and other implications of that simple act. Here are my ten top tips on how to make effective, responsible use of FOI.

FOI Mans Ten Top Tips on Making Responsible and Effective FOI Requests

1. Count to 10 before clicking “Send”

Or better still, sleep on it. Consider if you really do want the information, and if you do, whether you have asked the right questions.

2. Do your research

Is the information already available on the authority’s website, perhaps in their Publication Scheme? Is there information there that could be used to make your question(s) more relevant or incisive? Has the question been asked before? There may be a “Disclosure Log” on their website, or failing that, you could check WhatDoTheyKnow.com.

3. Take care when making “round robin” requests

Remember that the more organisations you send your request to, the more public money will be spent on answering your request. And use your research to weed out authorities that the request isn’t relevant to.

4. Try an informal approach first if possible

You may already have a professional relationship with somebody within the public authority. Alternatively, the authority may publish direct contact details for the department that deals with the issue you’re concerned about. Try contacting them first to sound them out. At the very least they may be able to advise you as to what to ask for, and occasionally, they may even be able to give you more information than you would be entitled to under FOI.

5. Be specific

If you do decide to make a FOI request, cite the Act in your request (you don’t have to but it can help to avoid confusion). Make your request as clear as possible. Don’t be ambiguous. You can’t blame a public authority for misinterpreting your request if you’ve not specified clearly what you want.

6. Don’t be greedy

It’s tempting to throw everything including the kitchen sink into your request. Don’t. Keep your request short and to the point. You can always make other requests later if you want more information.

7. Be polite

Try not to assume that the person reading your request is determined to avoid answering your question(s). It’s likely that members of your own family, perhaps some of your friends, are public servants. Would you feel content to send them your request?

8. Be patient

Your request isn’t the only request that will be received by the authority. The people who have to answer your request will also have a number of other responsibilities to meet. Try to be patient and accept that you may not get an answer as quickly as you would like. In the vast majority of cases you will get a response before the statutory deadline of 20 working days (and note that phrase, “working days”—in effect, organisations have a month to respond, give or take a couple of days).

9. Read the response carefully, and if necessary, use the Appeal process

A lot of effort goes into answering FOI requests, even (often especially) when your request is refused. Make sure you’ve understood the response.

Accept that in some cases, the authority just does not hold the information you’ve asked for. You may think they should, but if they haven’t, you can’t use FOI to force them to create it. Often the authority will explain why they don’t hold it—try to read their explanation with an open mind.

If your request has been refused using one of the exemptions (FOI) or exceptions (EIR), the authority should have provided you with an explanation of which ones apply and how. Where a public interest test has been applied, they should have explained the arguments for and against disclosure.

Try to take a step back and consider whether their arguments make sense. For instance, although you might like to have access to information about employees, you probably understand that some of that information is protected by the Data Protection Act. Whilst you may not be happy with the response, it may be that the Act has been applied correctly.

If the arguments don’t make sense or you disagree with them, and you still want the information, use the authority’s Internal Review process. The authority should have sent you details of this process with their response. All you really need to do though is to write to them, asking for an internal review. It will help your case if you set out the reasons why you think the exemptions/exceptions don’t apply. Where a public interest test has been applied, you can put forward your own arguments for disclosure if you don’t think these have been considered.

Again, be patient whilst waiting for a response, and when you do receive it, read it carefully. If you are still dissatisfied with it, consider contacting the Information Commissioner and asking him to review the response. Bear in mind that this may take some time—though turnaround times at the Commissioner’s Office have improved considerably in the last year.

10. Use the information you receive responsibly

If you want to use the information you’ve been sent, do so responsibly. One example of this is asking for permission if you want to reproduce a document that’s been sent to you (or at the very least acknowledging the source). Even though you’ve been sent the information, the copyright will normally still belong to the authority concerned or whoever gave it to them.

If you’re reporting on the information disclosed, try to provide context. Often the response will include an explanation of why, for instance, so much was spent on the particular activity you’ve asked about, or how spending compares with other similar organisations. Even if it doesn’t, it will often be a straightforward task to find contextual data or background. Whilst it may not make for as spectacular a story, excluding these facts could distort the impression given to your audience. This impression may well be convenient in the short term, but it could damage your reputation with the organisations that provide information to you, and ultimately with your audience if they learn that they are being misled.

Other Resources you may find Useful

Information Commissioner’s guide to making FOI requests.

Information Commissioner’s Charter for Responsible FOI Requests.

Information Commissioner’s guidance on appealing decisions.

NCVO guide to using FOI for campaigning.

Reproducing this Guide on your Website

This guide has been written to help anyone who wants to make an FOI request. If you’re a campaign group, for example, and you have a website and would like to reproduce the above there, please feel free to do so, but I’d appreciate an acknowledgement and a link to my home page (http://foiman.com). Or if you prefer to put a link from your site to this page, that’s fine too.

1 Freedom of Information Act 2000, c.36.

2 Memorandum to the Justice Select Committee – Post-Legislative Assessment of the Freedom of Information Act 2000, Ministry of Justice, December 2011, pp. 5-7.

3 ibid. p.85; B. Worthy, J. Amos et al, Town Hall Transparency? The impact of the Freedom of Information Act 2000 on local government in England, UCL Constitution Unit, 2011, p.13.

4 Memorandum, Ministry of Justice, 2011, p.85.

5 ibid., pp.59-61, also commissioned research at p.86; Worthy, Amos et al, Town Hall Transparency, 2011, p.16.

6 See for example the comments made by the former Cabinet Secretary, Sir Gus O’Donnell at http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-politics-16229867 or his predecessors in the House of Lords debate on Freedom of Information on 17 January 2012 at Hansard HL, 17 January 2012, Col. 532.

7 See for example Department for Education and Skills v Information Commissioner and The Evening Standard, Information Tribunal decision EA/2006/0006, 19 February 2007, para. 72.

8 Baker v Information Commissioner and the Department for Communities and Local Government, Information Tribunal decision EA/2006/0043, 1 June 2007, para. 18.

9 Eagles, Taggart and Liddell, Freedom of Information in New Zealand, OUP, 1992, p.373.

10 ibid.

11 E. Shepherd, A. Stevenson, A. Flinn, "Records management in English local government: the effect of freedom of information", Records Management Journal, Vol. 21 Iss: 2, 2011, pp.122 – 134.

12 Memorandum, Ministry of Justice, 2011, p.59, para. 211.

13 http://diaryofabenefitscrounger.blogspot.com/2012/01/i-support-spartacus-report.html

14 Worthy, Amos et al, Town Hall Transparency, 2011, p.19.

15 P. Hadley, Voicing your right to know: A guide to using Freedom of Information in campaigning, National Council for Voluntary Organisations, October 2010 http://www.ncvo-vol.org.uk/yourrighttoknow

16 ibid., pp.18-34.

17 A. Blair, A Journey, Hutchinson, 2010.

18 ‘Cabinet debates should be private – Cabinet Secretary’, BBC News Website, 17 December 2011 http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-politics-16229867.

19 K. Thornber, Guardian blog, 20 January 2010, quoted in B. Worthy, J. Amos et al, Town Hall Transparency?, 2011, p.23.

20 J.F.Baldwin, ‘Bad and mad: the FOI requests undermining our independence’, Times Higher Education, 11 September 2008 http://www.timeshighereducation.co.uk/story.asp?storyCode=403484&sectioncode=26

21 UUK Blogpost ‘Yes to open debate and transparency in research, but FOI is the wrong tool for the job’, 11 January 2012 http://blog.universitiesuk.ac.uk/2012/01/11/foiexemption/

22 http://www.foiman.com/foiguide1

23 Memorandum, Ministry of Justice, 2011, pp.49 ff.

24 ibid., para. 179.

25 B. Worthy, J. Amos et al, Town Hall Transparency?, 2011, p.35.

26 ibid.

27 The Freedom of Information and Data Protection (Appropriate Limit and Fees) Regulations 2004, SI 2004 No.3244.

28 Memorandum, Ministry of Justice, 2011, pp.127-128.

29 http://www.cabinetoffice.gov.uk/content/transparency-overview.

Prepared 25th July 2012