On 21 December, we added the National Centre for Circus Arts as a public authority on WhatDoTheyKnow, making it easy for anyone to send them a Freedom of Information request. We could have left it off the site and let our users find the email address themselves, but we didn’t want them to have to jump through hoops.⭕
Joking aside, this is a valid addition to the site — see below for more details about why this college is subject to the FOI Act — and one where we can imagine some interesting requests being submitted.
For example, one could ask for copies of the risk assessments used for the various circus skills taught to students — we imagine these would contain quite a bit of detail.
A procurement list might throw up some items you wouldn’t see from other education institutions, like juggling equipment, unicycles or clown shoes.
Prospective students who want to understand more about their chosen course’s application procedure and admission statistics often submit requests to UCAS, but applications for the National Centre for Circus Arts are handled directly (which makes sense: it would be hard to evidence circus skills on an UCAS form!).
Instead, anyone looking for more information about how the application process works could submit an FOI request directly to the college.
In addition, there is a wide range of requests that can be sent to almost any public authority on matters such as the use of public money, minutes of meetings, policies, letters, emails and contracts. All of these might have uniquely circusy angles when applied to this particular institution!
Some decisions are in-tents
It’s not always easy to work out whether a body is subject to FOI. For some bodies it’s really simple: they’re listed by name in Schedule 1 of the Freedom of Information Act 2000 (or the Scottish equivalent).
The National Centre for Circus Arts isn’t named here, but Schedule 1 does include references to definitions contained in other laws.
In the course of recent work to find more bodies to add to WhatDoTheyKnow, our volunteers have read and interpreted three pieces of legislation and an official register to work out which higher education institutions are subject to FOI.
The upshot of our research is that we consider that all bodies listed on the Office for Students register as “Approved (fee cap)” are subject to FOI. This includes the National Centre for Circus Arts (registry entry). Helpfully, the Centre acknowledges the fact that it is subject to FOI on its website which not all higher education institutions do – kudos for that.
UK higher education institutions walk a tightrope between the public and private sectors. They are subject to rules such as competition law that are normally relevant to private business, whilst at the same time being subject to laws that apply to the public sector such as the equality duty and FOI. It’s quite a lot to juggle. 🤹
Interestingly, the debate about the role of circuses in public life goes back to Roman times where the provision of food and entertainment to the poor were used to gain political power.
WhatDoTheyKnow lists a number of obscure public authorities on the site ranging from the Crown Estate Paving Commission to the Treasure Valuation Committee but the National Centre for Circus Arts is certainly one of the more unusual higher education institutions we list. There can’t be many places where people jump through fire for their graduation (page 13 of the 2023-24 prospectus).
In conclusion, if anyone is planning to run away during 2023 then please be advised that with this addition, WhatDoTheyKnow has both the sea and the circus covered.
We wish all our users a happy and healthy 2023.
Image: Jonny Gios
Suppose you’ve bought a Land Rover but you don’t know anything of its history. Might it have had an exciting past as a military vehicle? Has it had any major faults in its previous life? Freedom of Information is one way to find out.
And indeed, a number of people have been using WhatDoTheyKnow to discover more about the history of their ex-military Land Rovers by making a Freedom of Information request to the Ministry of Defence.
What information is available?
We’ve seen requests both for the military service history of a vehicle (for example which military units it was assigned to) and the maintenance record (details of inspections, servicing, faults and repairs).
Any information held is generally provided free of charge to anyone who asks — there is no requirement to prove that you are the owner or keeper of the vehicle. Here are some examples:
- Example of vehicle history released by the MOD
- Example of fault history released by the MOD
- Example of a request thread for the history of an ex-military landrover
How to make a request
Freedom of Information (FOI) requests can be made in public by using the WhatDoTheyKnow website to ask for information from the MOD. We would obviously prefer that people use our site, but FOI requests can also be made by writing a letter or sending an email.
Many of the requesters include both the chassis number and the registration number in the request, to help the MOD identify any relevant information held.
Will I get the information I ask for?
In some cases, information may be withheld using exemptions contained in the Freedom of Information Act 2000. For example, the MOD tends to redact the time taken to carry out repairs, to protect the commercial interests of the businesses they contract for this purpose.
In rare cases, information may be withheld in order to safeguard national security or to protect the UK’s defensive capabilities.
The MOD has publicly released a copy of the MERLIN database, in which details of military vehicles are recorded, and it may be worth checking that first if you are interested in making a request.
In the case of some previous FOI requests, where no information is held, the MOD has advised requesters that the Royal Logistic Corps Museum may be able to assist with their research (see for example this MOD letter of 25 September 2018).
Reasons that public authorities keep records about assets they no longer hold
The requests about ex-military Land Rovers highlight the fact that public authorities often hold records about assets they no longer own, and that in some cases this information will be of value to the new owners.
There are various reasons why records are kept after the asset is sold or otherwise disposed of. One is to help people who may have queries in the future. A great example of this practice is referenced in a response by Aberdeen Council to an FOI request made through WhatDoTheyKnow in June 2021.
“The electronic record held by Aberdeen City Council […] not only lists everything we have, but also everything that we once had as well. This is to ensure that we have a records trail for future research/provenance etc”.
Usage of FOI law in the UK
We think the requests about ex-military Land Rovers are interesting because they show the versatility of the UK’s FOI legislation.
Not every FOI request has to be about holding public authorities to account: requests can simply be made for information that people find useful for their businesses, their hobbies or their everyday lives. Making such requests in public helps other people who might be interested in making a similar request themselves. In addition, if there is an important public interest story hidden in the response, making the request in public maximises the chances that someone will find it.
Image: AlfvanBeem, CC0, via Wikimedia Commons