Freedom of Information

Originally published on Journalism Now on November 28th 2013 for my MA Journalism.

FREEDOM OF INFORMATION REQUEST 1

9 November 2013 email to Office for Fair Access (OFFA); a public body which ‘helps safeguard and promote fair access to higher education’

Dear Professor Ebdon

For the academic years 2011, 2012 and 2013, please can you tell me the number of Black and Minority Ethnic (BME) applicants who enrolled on National Qualification Framework level 6 courses at Higher Education Institutions in Hampshire and Dorset, broken down by institution.

The Freedom of Information Act (FoI) 2000 is a valuable journalistic tool. Since its implementation in 2005, the Act has enabled people to request information from some 130,000 public authorities and government departments. Bodies such as the Home Office, House of Lords, police force, NHS and GMC are obliged to disclose the information at no cost and within a timeframe, unless an exemption applies. Facilitating transparency of the conduct of such bodies was the Act’s guiding principle. When whistleblowers such as Helene Donnelly feel they have no choice but to follow in the footprints of Graham Pink, enabling transparency appears a valid reason for legislation. Interestingly, only around 12% of the annual c.100,000 FoI requests come from journalists.

My email to Professor Ebdon was borne of advice a novice may wish to take on board when making a FoI request, which are free. As a university admissions officer I chose to fix on a topic of which I was knowledgeable. I also requested historic data to hopefully elicit trends, which as a trainee journalist would make a more interesting story. Selling on a story produced from a FoI request would be more likely if, for example, it reported that 30 BME applicants enrolled on level 6 courses in Hampshire in 2013, down from 100 in 2012 and 1000 in 2011, rather than if it just stated the 2013 figure.

I received a response on 9 November which said to contact the FoI department. In the future I will ensure I check to see if an organisation has such a department or FoI request coordinator and contact them. Checking a body’s website also enables one to see if the information is already publicised.

OFFA responded on 13 November:

OFFA does not hold this information. We are not aware of any other organisation that would collate it. However, individual universities may be able to provide you with the data for their institution.

I hope this satisfies your request. Please contact me if you have any queries.

This response illustrated one of the reasons why organisations do not provide the information. In addition to the information not being held, it may not be disclosed if its procurement and dissemination would cost more than the limits for free provision or it is exempt. A public authority is not obliged, though can choose, to disclose the information if its provision exceeds £450 (rising to £600 for government departments). If exceeding these limits, the requester may be asked to contribute to the cost.

I shall return to the potentially journalistically stymying issue of exemptions. Stymying that is, for a journalist lacking tenacity. The nature of, or reasoning behind, the request, aside from being vexatious, should not materially affect whether the information is provided.

FREEDOM OF INFORMATION REQUEST 2

9 November 2013 email to Expert Advisory Group on Aids

Dear Sir or Madam

For the calendar years 2011, 2012 and 2013, please can you tell me the amount of people who have aids in Hampshire and Dorset?

10 days later I received the following email:

19 November 2013

Dear Mr Wilson

Re: HIV data for Hampshire and Dorset

Thank you for your email dated 9 November 2013 which you sent to the Expert Advisory Group on AIDS and asked for data showing the number of people who have aids in Hampshire and Dorset in the years 2011, 2012 and 2013.

Your email has been passed to the Public Information Access Unit and has been handled as a request for information under the Freedom of Information (FOI) Act. We have taken your request for “the number of people who have aids in Hampshire and Dorset”, to mean HIV prevalence in Hampshire and Dorset and in accordance with Section 1(1)(a) of the Act I can confirm that Public Health England (PHE) holds some data on HIV prevalence for the years you have specified.

The data showing HIV prevalence for 2011 is in the attached table. The data for 2012 is exempt information in accordance with section 21(1) of the FOI Act as it already published and in the public domain and is available via the link below. If facts are already in the public domain you may be pointed in that direction. The data for 2013 has not been published yet and therefore in accordance with section1(1)(a) I can confirm that PHE does not hold this information.

http://www.hpa.org.uk/Topics/InfectiousDiseases/InfectionsAZ/HIV/HIVData/#2._Country_and_PHE_Region_HIV_Data_Tables

If you have any queries regarding the information that has been supplied to you, please refer them to me in the first instance. If you are dissatisfied with this response and would like to request an internal review, then please contact Mr George Stafford at the address above or by emailing complaints@phe.gov.uk.

Please note that you have the right to an independent review by the Information Commissioner’s Office if a complaint cannot be resolved through the PHE complaints procedure. The Information Commissioner’s Office can be contacted by writing to Information Commissioner’s Office, Wycliffe House, Water Lane, Wilmslow, Cheshire SK9 5AF.

Yours sincerely

Jonathan Bennett

Freedom of Information Coordinator

This response was noticeable for the linguistic choices one must consider when making FoI requests. My lack of understanding of the distinction between Aids and HIV could have led to the organisation not providing me with any pertinent information. I learned to research the work of the body and the subject matter before sending FoI requests which make me look ill informed. Such understanding should assist me with using the language the organisation adopts. This is crucial in the world of bureaucracies who can be inventive and positively Orwellian with the English language.

Budding journalists may be heartened by the story potential of this response as PHE responded with a table that actually contained data on HIV prevalence in seemingly all of England’s local authorities.

ABSOLUTE AND QUALIFIED EXEMPTIONS

The coordinator stated that under section 21 of the Act 2012’s data was exempt. The information was absolutely exempt, axiomatically meaning the body does not have a duty to confirm or deny that the information exists. There are also qualified exemptions, meaning that if the body chooses not to divulge the information it must justify how on the balance of the public interest this action is justified. The information, if qualified exempt, must be divulged to you if the public interest in divulging it is greater than withholding said information.

ABSOLUTE EXEMPTIONS

information reasonably accessible by other means
information supplied to the public authority by or relating to bodies (e.g. MI5, MI6, GCHQ) dealing with security matters.
court records
personal information
information provided by the authority in confidence by another party (although public interest test should be applied)
information the disclosure of which is forbidden by other law (although public interest test should be applied)
the Queen, Prince of Wales and Prince William.

QUALIFIED EXEMPTIONS

information which if disclosed is likely to prejudice national security e.g. ministerial communications
information which if disclosed is likely to prejudice international relations
information held by an authority for law enforcement functions
information relating to formulation or development of Government policy
information the disclosure of which is likely to prejudice effective conduct of public affairs (a journalistically derided exemption)
commercial secrets
Prince Harry and Duke of Edinburgh.

PUBLIC INTEREST JUSTIFICATION FOR DISCLOSURE OF INFORMATION

promoting accountability and transparency
furthering the understanding of and participation in the public debates of issues of the day
allowing individuals and companies to understand decisions made by public authorities affecting their lives
bringing to light information affecting public health and public safety
information requested involved a large amount of public money
for information created some time ago, time has reduced the strength of argument against its disclosure

FREEDOM OF INFORMATION REQUEST 3

9 November 2013 email to British Transport Police:

Dear Sir or Madam

Please can you tell me the number of indictable offences committed on trains in Hampshire and Dorset for the last three years? Additionally, please give me a specific break down of the nature of the offences e.g. assault.

I received an email response on 11 November saying being processed in accordance with Act.

Then on 13 November, highlighting my lack of knowledge of how their crime recording system operates, this response:

It is not possible to progress your request at this time, as clarification is needed from you to enable us to locate the information you have asked for.

British Transport Police do not classify offences on our crime recording system as ‘indictable’. Please could you advise whether you would like the statistics relating to notifiable offences for the period and area requested, or if not, please could you state which offences you would like?

In line with the Freedom of Information Act 2000 Section 10(6), the 20 working day timescale will be suspended until the required clarification has been received, restarting on the date when the information is received.

On 13 November I replied:

Dear Kay

Many thanks for your response. I would like the statistics relating to notifiable offences for the period and area requested please.

As with my FoI request regarding Aids, I learned that the phrasing of your question is vital in terms of the information you receive. An understanding of how British Transport Police record crimes would have facilitated a quicker response and shown me to be more informed. It is also advised to try and phrase your request in a way that considers the potential cost impact. Intriguingly, organisations must offer ‘advice and assistance’ on how to word requests to, for example, stay within cost limits. A list of do’s and don’ts regarding requests http://www.ico.org.uk/for_the_public/official_information

This email referenced the 20 working days timeframe in which bodies should respond with or advise if the public interest test is being applied. Requests subject to the public interest test could be effectively kicked into the long grass, due to the lack of a specific statutory timeframe in which a final response is required.

On 27 November I received a response with data for the last 4 years for both counties, detailing the offence and number of crime. For example, in 2012 there were 5 assaults constituting actual body harm on trains in Hampshire, down from 6 the previous year.

Also, intriguingly, there was an accompanying letter from BTP containing details on its crime recording system and some points to consider when interpreting crime data such as ‘crime statistics are not always accurate indicators of crime’ and ‘they need to be viewed in their context.’ The email also included a letter outlining the process of requesting an internal review then, if dissatisfied, appealing to the Information Commissioner. The next step, if not content with the Commissioner’s decision, would be to appeal to the First-tier Tribunal (Information Rights).

The MPs expenses scandal, emanated from journalist Heather Brooke’s FoI request, which would start her on a path that took in this review process then and an eventual appearance at the High Court. She describes her journey on http://www.theguardian.com/politics/2009/may/15/mps-expenses-heather-brooke-foi

Would you like an opaque or transparent Parliamentary prism?

Further reading:

http://www.legislation.gov.uk/ukpga/2000/36/contents The Freedom of Information Act 2000

https://www.whatdotheyknow.com/ How to make a FoI request

http://www.nationalarchives.gov.uk/foi/default.htm National archives list of public authorities

http://www.ico.org.uk/ Information Commissioner’s Office

http://www.theguardian.com/profile/heather-brooke Heather Brooke’s articles

http://heatherbrooke.org/ Heather Brooke’s website

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