By law, a public authority usually has to respond to a request made under the Freedom of Information Act 2000 promptly, and within 20 working days. However, there are instances when this deadline may be extended.
This usually happens when the authority needs to conduct a public interest test to determine whether it’s in the public interest to apply one of the many exemptions in the Act, or whether they should release the information.
We’ve observed a recurring trend where the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office (FCDO) has been frequently extending the response deadline to consider the public interest. This has resulted in significant delays in the provision of responses.
We’ve tracked 35 requests where the FCDO has taken over 100 days to respond. Here are four of the most notable delays that we’ve come across:
- This request for briefing notes prepared for then Prime Minister David Cameron’s 2013 trip to China is still unanswered after more than 430 working days and 21 Public Interest extensions.
- A request concerning UK-AIS commercial deals took 388 working days to answer.
- In another case, 274 working days after the requester asked for the information, the department sent them a letter giving them just seven days to respond if they still wanted their request to be processed.
- A request about various projects in Turkey took 239 working days to be answered.
While the Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) suggests that the process of considering the public interest shouldn’t typically take more than an additional 20 working days, the law itself doesn’t set a time limit, which restricts the options available to requesters to challenge this practice.The situation is better if you have asked for information from a Scottish public authority, as these requests are handled under different legislation. The Freedom of Information (Scotland) Act does not allow for additional time to be taken when assessing the public interest in releasing information, which means that Scottish public authorities must do so within the original 20-working-day timeframe. The Independent Commission on Freedom of Information that the Public Interest Test extension be abolished, and replaced with a time limited extension that covered requests that were complex to handle, a call which we echoed.
If you find that an authority has sought to extend the response deadline for one of your requests multiple times, we would strongly recommend that you lodge a complaint with the ICO. This is quick and easy to do using their online complaint form. They will typically write to the authority, asking them to respond to your request within 10 working days. You can find examples on WhatDoTheyKnow where requesters have successfully done this. Although the ICO is continuing to work through a large casework backlog, our experience is that they usually handle complaints of this nature promptly.
We are continuing to collect examples of delays caused by authorities conducting public interest tests. If you know of any that we’ve missed, please contact us and let us know, especially if you have personal experiences to share.
Image: Lucian Alexe
For over a decade and a half, we’ve been working to empower journalists, activists and campaigners, researchers, and tens of thousands of curious citizens to access information from UK public authorities.
Fighting your corner
It’s hard to imagine what the UK’s FOI landscape would look like without WhatDoTheyKnow, but in the early days, we faced many important battles to establish the right to have requests responded to via our platform at all.
And they’re not over: even today, we face fresh challenges, such as from public authorities who are putting barriers in the way of our users by refusing to answer valid requests unless these are submitted using a particular form. We are determined to continue to highlight poor practice and defend users’ information rights.
Half a million pieces of information
One of the advantages to using WhatDoTheyKnow is that it serves as a permanent archive of requests and responses. Any information that you get released using WhatDoTheyKnow is accessible to others to share and build on. From humble beginnings, there have now been over 500,000 requests that have resulted in the release of at least some information, turning this into a valuable resource.
Given the depth and breadth of the information on the site, it’s hard to pick a few examples to illustrate the impact of requests made through the service but here are some notable releases:
A 2013 request revealed the existence of the Home Office’s Interventions and Sanctions Directorate (ISD), which was responsible for overseeing the controversial hostile environment policy. Working with public and private sector partners, the ISD restricted access to benefits and services for irregular migrants, ensuring that sanctions were enforced. Four years later, the Windrush scandal exposed the devastating human consequences of this policy.
A request to the Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority (IPSA) uncovered a dispute with HMRC. This made front page headlines, after it was revealed that certain MPs had sought to utilise public funds to employ experts to complete their expense claims for them.
A 2021 request to the Science Museum revealed that the museum had signed a sponsorship agreement with Shell, where it gave an undertaking not to do or say anything that could damage the reputation of the oil company. The existence of this ‘gagging clause’ was reported by Channel 4 News and the Times among others.
Whilst it would be tempting to try to measure the platform’s success by the remarkable volume of information that has been released, or the myriad of news stories that have been written as a result, for me, WhatDoTheyKnow’s true strength lies in its ability to empower individuals. By simplifying and demystifying the requesting process, WhatDoTheyKnow has made it more accessible to individuals who might have otherwise never considered submitting a request for information.
The impact of WhatDoTheyKnow has stretched far beyond the United Kingdom. WhatDoTheyKnow gave rise to Alaveteli, the open-source FOI software that’s helping to open up governments across six continents. In addition to our core platform, we’ve also developed WhatDoTheyKnow Pro. Specifically tailored to journalists, this service enables users to keep their requests private while they work on their stories, before sharing the source data with the world.
None of this would have been possible without the dedication of our volunteer team, who have worked tirelessly behind the scenes to offer guidance and support to our users, as well as managing the day-to-day running of the site. We’re immensely grateful to them, and all of our donors and funders over the years, whose continued backing has ensured the ongoing success and growth of the service.
We are excited about the next 15 years and we look forward to building on what we have already achieved to help more people to access more information more easily than ever before.
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While running mySociety’s Freedom of Information service WhatDoTheyKnow.com we’ve noticed that some public authorities are refusing to process valid FOI requests made via email, including some sent via our website. A few public authorities have gone so far as to switch off their dedicated FOI email addresses, and have been telling our users that they need to fill in a webform, or make a request by post.
This practice is against the law. For a Freedom of Information request to be valid, all that’s required is that a) it’s made in writing; b) it includes the requester’s name and an address for correspondence; and c) it describes the information being requested.
Requests made via email are valid and should be processed promptly, however they are received. We contacted the Information Commissioner’s Office, who confirmed that:
“Whilst a public authority can request a form is filled in, you are not obliged to do this” and “this should not be made a compulsory requirement.”
We believe that citizens shouldn’t need to have a detailed understanding of FOI law in order to have valid requests for information logged and answered. Public authority staff should be trained to recognise valid requests, however they are received. The refusal by some authorities to recognise and process requests for information has led to unnecessary delays in requests being answered, and to some requests not being answered at all.
Whilst there are obvious benefits to public authorities from using case management systems, these should be capable of dealing with email and handling requests that are made via other means.
Where web-forms are an authority’s preferred form of contact, these should be simple to complete and not require requesters to hand over more personal information than they are required to by law. We’ve seen web-forms which ask requesters for information such as their date of birth, whether they are a journalist and the purpose of their request, for example, none of which the authority needs to know, and some of which might prejudice their response. Sometimes these additional fields are marked as compulsory.
We’ve also noticed that some authorities have started to reply to FOI requests using a “noreply” email address. This is poor practice because it makes it harder for requesters to ask for clarification or to request an internal review. Ideally, responses to requests should be sent from an address that accepts incoming mail.
How we’re responding
If a public body turns off its FOI contact email address and directs requests to a web-form, we try to find an alternative address to send requests to. We do all we can to get our users’ requests delivered, and we invariably succeed.
In a handful of cases we’ve resorted to sending our users’ requests to public bodies’ Chief Executives as part of our efforts to both get our users’ requests delivered and to encourage authorities to abide by Access to Information law.
Have you seen this practice?
While we have only seen this behaviour at a relatively small number of public bodies so far, some of those adopting this approach have included significant authorities such as local councils. It is important to identify and challenge this practice before it spreads more widely, so please let us know if you spot any examples. If you receive a message suggesting you have to make your request again via a web-form, do challenge that, citing the ICO guidance on valid requests.
We are keen to see the Information Commissioner step in and tackle systemic problems with the way public bodies deal with requests for information. We are encouraged by the recent commitment from the Information Commissioner’s Office to deliver “more systemic enforcement action against public authorities that clearly and consistently fail to meet their FOI obligations”. The fact we publish FOI requests and their responses provides evidence which can support the Commissioner in this work.
Here are some examples:
“All FOI requests have to be put in writing to the Freedom of Information Officer, […] or by completing our online form.” [View on WhatDoTheyKnow]
“Can I ask that you please submit your enquiry via our website. The FOI process has recently changed and we have a form that will ask for all the information we need to process this.” [View on WhatDoTheyKnow]
“This Freedom of Information request has been received via a mailbox that does not record new requests. Please make your request using the online form under How to make Freedom of Information and Environmental Information Regulations Requests on the Council’s website” [View on WhatDoTheyKnow]
“All freedom of Information requests now have to be applied for using our online form (see link sent in my colleagues previous email to you). Once we have your request it will be responded to within 20 days of receipt.” [View on WhatDoTheyKnow]
Our Freedom of Information service WhatDoTheyKnow has just seen what we think is its largest ever release of information. National Highways has released 1.25 TB of bat survey data, made up of over 115,000 files, including:
- 786 videos – that’s over 250 hours of footage
- 54,570 audio files
- 354 spreadsheets
- 2,532 images
Requester Emma Tristram has been using data released via WhatDoTheyKnow to campaign against the proposed construction of the A27 Arundel Bypass. Commenting on the release, she told us:
“It’s fantastic that through WhatDoTheyKnow this recent bat survey data by National Highways is now available to the public. With these up to date bat surveys those fighting the devastating Arundel bypass scheme hope to strengthen their case that the scheme should be cancelled. The scheme would ruin four villages as well as a huge, very biodiverse wildlife area, which Natural England say is of international importance for bats.”
In response to a consultation about the proposed road building scheme, Natural England confirms the exceptional importance of the environment in and around the South Downs National Park and the need for its protection. They describe the area as containing irreplaceable and rare habitats and priority habitats (Habitats of Principal Importance) which “support an outstanding assemblage of species”. These include numerous maternity roosts of rare bats including Barbastelle, Bechstein’s and the Alcathoe bat.
The request was dealt with under the Environmental Information Regulations (EIR). EIR, like Freedom of Information requests, can be used to access more than just documents, correspondence and paperwork. As the climate crisis brings urgent challenges for our public institutions to address, access to environmental information will be increasingly valuable to businesses, campaign groups and the general public. Requests about how limited and in some cases irreplaceable environmental resources are being managed are just as important as requests around how public money is being used. By gaining access to raw data such as this, environmental campaigners are able to independently examine and verify the results of any studies that have been carried out.
Due to the size of the release, the authority has made the information available using a file sharing service. When authorities reply to requests made via WhatDoTheyKnow in this way, we will do our best to host their responses by uploading the data to our own servers. Hosting a release of this size poses some logistical challenges, but we are looking at ways of making the data available. If you have any suggestions about how we can best achieve this, please get in touch.