WhatDoTheyKnow Beats Parliamentary Question

Many MPs and Lords use the Freedom of Information Act to obtain information from public authorities despite the fact they are able to table parliamentary questions. Occasionally they make their requests via mySociety’s freedom of information website WhatDoTheyKnow.com which ensures both the request, and its response, are freely available online. Surprisingly the freedom of information route can result in the release of more, and better quality, information than a written Parliamentary Question.

For example on the 12th of November 2009 Eleanor Laing the Conservative Shadow Minister for Justice submitted the following written Parliamentary Question:

To ask the Secretary of State for Health how many staff in his Department were employed on the management of freedom of information requests submitted to his Department in each year since 2005; and how much his Department spent on the management of such requests in each such year.

The response contained the number of staff per year as requested but with respect to the spending the parliamentary response stated: “The information requested on expenditure could be provided only at disproportionate cost.”

A very similar request for information had been made many months previously, in July, by WhatDoTheyKnow.com user and FOI campaigner Heather Brooke. The response to the FOI request contained more information, and more precise information, than Eleanor Laing had obtained via her parliamentary question. When the request was made via WhatDoTheyKnow how much staff substantially involved in answering requests were paid was disclosed, in detail.

While the costs of complying with a particular request are capped by regulations under the Freedom of Information Act, data on total costs of FOI compliance such as that released by this request allows the average costs of dealing with a request to be calculated.

MPs using WhatDoTheyKnow

Do let us know in the comments if you’ve spotted any more!


  1. I admit it! I use FOI requests quite often to get answers from the local authority, Brighton & Hove, where I’m a councillor.

    At first I felt sheepish about having to do it, but now that I see the higher quality of responses I get through this method compared with questions in Council meetings, I shall being to make more use of WhatDoTheyKnow.

  2. Brenda Wilkinson

    I have recently been refused information by Central Bedfordshire Council reference S21 of the FOIA because the information MAY be in the Archives & Records office (a 45 mile round trip!) i.e. reasonably accessible. What I do not understand is why I get this response yet others can use the FOIA when there are other ways to access the information (albeit less effective.
    I have challenged the response. In the meantime I am also concerned that the provision of disclosure logs is not a statutory requirement under the FOIA. I am sure that nobody wants public authorities to waste time and money repeatedly answering the same questions.

  3. Brenda,

    Many thanks for your comment.

    Section 21 of the FOI act, which exempts information accessible by other means, contains a provision making clear that information which is only accessible as it is available for inspection (or on request) is not exempt.


    There is a bit of an anomaly in the act that if a public body has a procedure for obtaining information from their archives, even if that involves payment, it means that they can say the material is exempt from disclosure under FOI on the grounds it is accessible by other means. This is the case as long as the procedure involves more than simply requesting the information or allowing you to inspect documents if you visit the archives. FOI law as it stands at the moment isn’t a means for short-cutting existing ways of accessing information.

    Without knowing the details of your request, and the details of the council’s procedures for accessing their archives, it’s hard to judge if the council’s rejection is in-line with the FOI act.

    The FOI act is far from perfect, and one thing we’re trying to do at WhatDoTheyKnow is lobby for improvements to it. It would be really great if people like you made your requests in public via the site so that others could look at the correspondence and perhaps cite it when arguing for improvements to the law.

    On disclosure logs – one thing WhatDoTheyKnow does is act as an archive / repository of FOI requests and responses – hopefully bringing some of the benefits which a disclosure log would (though it can’t be as comprehensive as a public bodies could be).

    My personal view is that all central government departments, police forces, and other major bodies ought be required to maintain disclosure logs; though we have to be careful not to make compliance with the law too onerous on smaller bodies for example schools, or parish councils. The government (or specific public bodies) could always work with WhatDoTheyKnow and require all FOI requests made outside the site be “generated” within it and automatically placed online, working with WhatDoTheyKnow would be an easy and cheap way for any public body to operate a disclosure log.


    Richard – WhatDoTheyKnow.com volunteer

  4. Another example:

    Tom Watson MP asked a written Parliamentary Question about the costs of engaging artist Lothar Gotz’s to redecorate the Arts Council’s head office.

    Mr Watson’s request was denied on the grounds of commercial sensitivity, and he tweeted to say he thought FOI would obtain the information.

    I used WhatDoTheyKnow to make a request for the costs, and they were released to me:


  5. Over at the BBC’s Open Secrets blog Martin Rosenbaum has written:

    …the information commissioner has ruled that a Parliamentary Question is not a valid request for the purposes of the Act. If a PQ were a request under the FOI Act, MPs and peers could appeal to the commissioner for a decision on whether it had been properly answered in accordance with freedom of information law. Any attempted decision from the commissioner on such a matter would raise the issue of the infringement of Parliamentary privilege.

    This is the position stated in the guide to Parliament’s standing orders. The matter was discussed earlier in the year in the House of Lords.