WhatDoTheyKnow – Oral Evidence to MPs on First Five Years of FOI in the UK

Alex Skene, WhatDoTheyKnow.com, at the Justice Select Committee
On the 21st of February 2012 Alex Skene, representing mySociety’s Freedom of Information website WhatDoTheyKnow, appeared in front of the UK Parliament’s Justice Select Committee. The MPs on the committee were holding an evidence session as part of their post-legislative scrutiny of the Freedom of Information Act.

Video of the session can be viewed online via ParliamentLive.TV and the BBC’s Democracy Live. A transcript of the session will become available via TheyWorkForYou, typically these take a week or two to be produced.

Prior to the session WhatDoTheyKnow had submitted written evidence to the review making three main points:

  • The scope of the act should be extended to cover a wider range of public bodies.
  • Time limits should be introduced for public interest tests and internal reviews.
  • There is a need for more proactive publication of information, and a culture of openness and transparency needs to continue to be nurtured and extended within the UK’s public sector

The committee appeared genuinely interested in finding out how FOI has performed to-date and how it can be improved.

Supercharging FOI

Alex told the committee that FOI enables evidence based policy making and empowers citizens; he said the WhatDoTheyKnow.com website supercharges the provisions of the FOI Act making it easier for people to take advantage of the right to access information which it gives them.


Elfyn Llwyd MP raised the question of vexatious and frivolous requests through the medium of ghosts. Asked if requests about ghosts could ever be justified Alex told MPs that it was hard to draw the line between acceptable and unacceptable requests. He noted that one council had spent public money on an exorcism, so in that case there would be information held and an FOI request justified. He questioned if requests on ghosts were to be deemed unacceptable, what other areas might be excluded. UFOs? The MoD for a long period did have an office collating UFO reports, again there was public spending, and recorded information held, in this area. Homeopathy was also highlighted, that’s about as real as ghosts or UFOs, but again FOI requests about it must surely be permitted as significant amounts of taxpayers money are spent on it.

Maurice Frankel, the director of the Campaign for Freedom of Information, who was giving evidence alongside WhatDoTheyKnow took a stronger line. He described those who made FOI requests about ghosts as “idiots”; but also accepted it was hard, and undesirable, to try and outlaw requests on certain subjects. He added that such requests did not generally cost large amounts of money to deal with.

Time Limits

MPs on the committee appeared sympathetic to calls from the representatives of WhatDoTheyKnow and the Campaign for Freedom of Information to introduce stricter time limits. The need for time limits was brought into focus during the discussion of the time limits for prosecutions under S.77 of the Act (Offence of altering etc. records with intent to prevent disclosure), very few requests have gone through a response, and internal review, and the Information Commissioner within the time limit for launching a prosecution. An MP suggested making offences under S.77 triable in either a magistrates or a crown court so as to extend the time period while retaining consistency with the rest of the justice system.


When asked to comment on the idea of introducing fees for all FOI requests Alex said such proposals would be “devastating” and would deter many from making requests. Alex noted that the public had paid for the information in question already, via general taxation, and ought be able to access it.

Exempting Universities

When asked to comment on lobbying from universities to be exempted from FOI, Alex robustly defended their inclusion in the act, pointing to their role in controlling access to professions and awarding degrees. Maurice Frankel and Alex noted the universities’ argument that they were being funded by a decreasing fraction of public money wasn’t really relevant, as that is not the basis on which bodies are deemed to be covered by the Act.

Extending Coverage of FOI

The reach of FOI into commercial organisations carrying out work on behalf of public bodies was briefly discussed however notably there was little further discussion of extending the coverage of FOI, perhaps suggesting this may be a dedicated subject for future evidence session. This session was been described as the committee’s first, suggesting there will be more. At least one of these will presumably hear from the Information Commissioner.

The written evidence we submitted can be read on page 81 of the compendium of submitted evidence (PDF).


  1. Rosemary Cantwell

    22 April 2012

    Dear Whatdotheyknow

    I applaud Chris Lightfoot for having the vision to create this medium by which anybody can ask questions. Where public authorities have ignored my requests when I have made them privately, by making it a publicly viewable website it means that the authorities become more accountable as it is not just myself making an enquiry, it becomes an enquiry made on behalf of everyone, as the responses are public – although it is possible for authorities to respond privately, many authorities publish documents on this website which then becomes a public access repository of information in its own right.

    Mr Maude I believe to be correct in wanting to extend the FOIAct so that when information is given to one person, that person can then have the right to use the information in the furtherance of getting a society where information is freely available.

    Maybe the best way for FOI Requests to be made in future will be by such a site as Whatdotheyknow but that they need to be moderated in accordance with the ICO, and therefore it would be most helpful, I suggest, to have a legal team dealing with all FOI Requests to “triage” them before going to any public authority, so that it will then lessen the burden on public authorities but that centralised triaging will then lead to weeding out the ones that have already been asked before, and the requester can be shown where to find this information.

    It would save considerable amounts of money for although the centralised system will have a major cost implication, it will also save considerable costs, especially if there can be Apps provided on topics that frequently are asked.

    I have made over 160 Freedom of Information Requests via Whatdotheyknow and have found out by trial and error what is and what is not personal information. But it is a major factor in deciding and determining what can and cannot be requested. And I do believe this needs to be overhauled.

    Is it permissible to ask about living people? Yes or no?

    The question about MPs’ expenses on the one hand is just about figures, but on the other hand it is actually about the actions of people and people have been tried in open court in consequence.

    Thus, I wish this specific area of the law to be clarified.

    Can a person ask about what has happened to him/herself? Yes or no?

    I find the overlap with the Data Protection Subject Access of the DPA1998 to be a matter of considerable concern.

    For on the one hand the MPs might have been able to claim that they were protected by parliamentary privilege and DPA1998 whereas it was actually determined under FOIAct2000 that this information even though it identified individuals could indeed be publicly disclosed.

    I request that a review be made into the disclosure of information.

    There has been much discussion about whether or not we should close the FOI altogether.

    If this were to be the case, could something else be put in the place of both the DPA1998 AND the FOI2000 so that we have a single legislative measure that defines precisely what can and cannot be asked, for at the moment we seem to be falling between two stools.

    The Law Commission itself has been informed that it had to answer my request for information when it had determined that I did not make a valid request for information:

    Reference: FS50435142
    Freedom of Information Act 2000 (FOIA)
    Decision notice
    Date: 26 March 2012
    Public Authority: Law Commission

    I am sure that this is a major problem for many people and authorities as to what is and what is not a valid application.

    To me, the legislation regarding data control and information access does indeed need a radical overhaul.

    I thank Whatdotheyknow once again for all their help and wish them every success in the future.

    With best wishes

    Rosemary Cantwell