1. An exemplary use of WhatDoTheyKnow by the Centre for Public Data

    The Centre for Public Data has released significant new research on property in England and Wales that is owned by individuals based overseas.

    The work is based on material released through Freedom of Information requests made to the Land Registry via WhatDoTheyKnow.com.

    The headline findings include:

    • Nearly 1% of properties registered in the UK are registered to individuals with an overseas correspondence address; this number has more than doubled since 2010.
    • The number of properties registered to individuals with an overseas correspondence address is now more than double the number registered to overseas companies.

    The work cites and links to the source data on WhatDoTheyKnow (and WhatDoTheyKnow in turn links back to the analysis and commentary).

    One of the benefits of making FOI requests via WhatDoTheyKnow is the ability to easily link to the source when taking action based on released information. Citing sources gives work credibility, and it also makes it easy for others to verify what has been done, build on it, or conduct their own analysis based on their particular interests. We want to encourage this kind of exemplary use of WhatDoTheyKnow for well-referenced FOI based research.

    The data obtained, and presented, by the Centre for Public Data in this case may inform debate on a range of socially important issues including how overseas property owners, who may well be investors, affect the supply and affordability of housing.

    The Centre for Public Data have provided a tool enabling searching of the data – this means local journalists (or others with an interest in a particular area) can quickly obtain localised data.

    Image: Gary Stearman

  2. Sequences of Covid-19 vaccines released via WhatDoTheyKnow

    The nucleotide sequences of the AstraZeneca and Pfizer/BioNTech, vaccines used in the UK have been released in response to a Freedom of Information request made via WhatDoTheyKnow.com.

    As the sequences have been released via WhatDoTheyKnow they can now be accessed by anyone.

    The release, on 26th of October 2021, by the UK’s Medicines and Healthcare Products Regulatory Agency follows an initial refusal under Section 41 (Information provided in confidence) and Section 43 (Commercial interests) of the Freedom of Information (FOI) Act, which was overturned as a result of an internal review prompted by the requester.

    The Medicines and Healthcare Products Regulatory Agency published “Information for healthcare professionals and the public” when they approved each COVID-19 vaccine:

    However, the information proactively released at the time the vaccines were approved did not contain their nucleotide sequences, and prior to this FOI response they had not been officially released by the agency.

    While the vaccines had been described, details of the information they encoded had not been publicly released. Imagine the vaccine as data on a USB drive. Prior to this response, what the regulators proactively released when approving the vaccines was akin to information on the materials used to make, and package, the drive: plastic, and metal, along with a vague description of its contents, rather than a copy of the actual data contained on the drive.

    It could be argued that people were not able to make a fully informed decision on whether or not to have the vaccine given that their sequences were not initially available. This was the case made by the requester when they asked for the initial refusal to be reconsidered. Of course one wouldn’t expect many individuals to review sequence data personally, but  as the data wasn’t generally available to those outside of the manufacturers and regulators, independent analysis and commentary was chilled.

    The lack of transparency surrounding the detailed composition of the vaccines was not limited to the UK. The fact the sequences were not available prompted one group of scientists to seek to determine the sequences of the Pfizer/BioNTech and Moderna vaccines themselves, analysing small portions of vaccine doses that remained in vials after immunisation. They carried out this work, with the permission of regulators in the USA, and published their results on GitHub.

    In its FOI response the Medicines and Healthcare Products Regulatory Agency stated that it had “obtained consent from the relevant companies to release the full nucleotide base sequences”. Not all the requested information has yet been released. The response states the Janssen Covid-19 nucleotide sequence has been released, however it is not contained in the attached documents (a protein sequence, rather than a nucleotide sequence has been provided). The response also says: “discussions are continuing with regard to the release of the sequence of the COVID-19 Vaccine Moderna.” This suggests two more sequences should hopefully be forthcoming on the correspondence thread soon.

    We are hopeful the released material, which in some cases goes beyond the sequences and includes further information about the vaccines, is of value. As always we encourage those who make use of the released data to cite the WhatDoTheyKnow thread, and to link to their work via annotations.

    Image: Spencer Davis

  3. Want to know more about sewage? Use WhatDoTheyKnow.com

    Recently the discharge of untreated sewage into the sea and rivers has been in the news in the UK. This prompted us to update and expand our coverage of organisations responsible for such activities on our access to information website WhatDoTheyKnow.com.

    Since a ruling in 2015 all organisations which provide certain water and sewage related services have been considered public bodies for the purposes of the Environmental Information Regulations; this means everyone has a right to the environmental information they hold.  Even private water and sewage companies can be considered public bodies under the regulations.

    We often describe WhatDoTheyKnow.com as a Freedom of Information website, but it can be used to obtain public information under a range of access to information legislation, not just the UK and Scotland’s Freedom of Information Acts. So if you want environmental information about sewage we’d love to see you requesting it, in public, via WhatDoTheyKnow.

    We’ve listed water companies on WhatDoTheyKnow for some time, and we have now specifically collected those responsible for sewers into their own category. This will hopefully assist people considering making a request for information and help ensure requests are directed to appropriate organisations.

    We’ve also generally improved our categorisation of water companies and have made a specific list of general regional water suppliers available.

    We’re always keen to see requests made in a responsible manner. Anyone considering making a request for information should check relevant bodies’ websites for the information they are seeking  before making a request. Some organisations publish some information about releases of untreated raw sewage, and information about their plans to monitor, and reduce, such occurrences.  Where information is collated by a central body, requesting it once, from that body, is more efficient than requesting it from many bodies. The Environment Agency for example collates and publishes some data on storm overflows centrally.

    We list the Environment Agency, the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, Highways bodies (which are responsible for surface drainage from roads), and many other relevant bodies on WhatDoTheyKnow.

    Before making your own requests it’s a good idea to look at work which has already been done by others to collate, present and share information: for example the Rivers Trust have published a map of where the sewerage network discharges treated effluent and overflows of untreated effluent and storm water into rivers in England & Wales.

    The current interest in this subject in the UK has focused on MPs’ consideration of the Environment Bill. Proposals for the Bill include provisions requiring the publication of information on the location of “storm overflows” and the frequency, duration and volume of discharges from such overflows.  We’re keen to see timely proactive publication of information rather than having information only released on request; we’re more than happy to see the need for our service reduced by greater proactive transparency from public bodies.

    We would like to see news articles, campaigners and academics citing, and linking to, the sources of the data on which their work is based. This improves the credibility of the work, and enables others to check, and build on, what has been done. Requesting information in public via WhatDoTheyKnow.com makes such citations and links easy to offer.

    Image: Ivan Bandura

  4. TICTeC Show and Tell: Right to Know across Europe

    It’s always so cheering to hear about campaigns that have had real results, and this week’s TICTeC Show And Tell gave us plenty of inspiration on that front.

    We heard how FOI has been at the heart of investigations in Croatia, France, Scotland and the crossborder Lost In Europe project, along with two deep dives into the state of FOI in the UK — all in the name of International Right To Know Day.

    As ever, you can catch up with the event in multiple ways:

    • All videos are all available over on our YouTube channel. You can watch the entire event, or pick and choose from the individual presentations, as below.
    • Speakers have shared their slides. Access them via the links to each presentation on the TICTeC website.
    • We live tweeted as the event happened, including links to reports that were mentioned and previous case studies going into more detail about some of the campaigns mentioned.

    Full video

    Individual presentations

    The FOI Clearing House: an openDemocracy investigation into freedom of information at the heart of government

    Jenna Corderoy of OpenDemocracyJenna Corderoy (openDemocracy, UK)

    openDemocracy’s Jenna Corderoy discussed her recent investigations into the Clearing House, a unit within the UK Cabinet Office that “advises on” and “coordinates” FOI requests referred by government departments.

    openDemocracy has uncovered alarming evidence that the Clearing House blocks the release of information and causes lengthy delays; their investigations and subsequent FOI tribunal hearing over Clearing House documents have sparked a UK parliamentary inquiry.

    See this presentation


    Lost in Europe: deploying the Alaveteli network on a cross-border investigation

    Liset Hamming of LIELiset Hamming (The Dutch-Flemish Association for Investigative Journalists (VVOJ), Netherlands

    Ten European FOI sites were used in this Netherlands-based investigation into the thousands of children who go missing as they migrate across European borders. The FOI component of this journalistic investigative research project is led by an Alaveteli insider, running the recently launched Dutch Alaveteli site.

    See this presentation


    Watch this space (and pay for it): Alaveteli-driven exposure of the misuse of public resources in an election campaign

    Dražen Hoffmann of GONGDražen Hoffmann (GONG, Croatia)

    In April 2021, GONG used the Alaveteli-powered platform ImamoPravoZnati to unveil the practice of funding a YouTube channel by the mayors and country prefect of a county in Croatia, ahead of the May 2021 local elections.

    The quaint footage of seaside towns and villages, and boasting of successful projects, in fact concealed a misuse of public resources for the purposes of incumbents’ campaigns. This practice of non-transparent media buying is one that GONG addresses continuously.

    See this presentation


    Regulating Access to Information

    Alex Parsons of mySocietyAlex Parsons (mySociety)

    The practical reality of Access to Information laws depends on how effective the system of regulation and appeal is.

    Alex shares mySociety’s recent work in comparing different systems of regulation in the UK, and parts of our upcoming research that will do the same for regulation across Europe.

    See this presentation


    Running an Access to Information platform in France: obstacles and success stories

    Samuel Goeta of MadadaSamuel Goëta (MaDada.fr, France)

    Open data in France, says Samuel,  looks somewhat like the Tower of Pisa: a beautiful building (open data is mandatory by law), but leaning because its foundations (the Freedom of Information Act) are in bad shape.

    Samuel speaks about the weaknesses of FOIA in France, how the French Alaveteli platform madada.fr manages them and the first success stories coming out of the platform. Importantly, MaDada has been responsible for a wider understanding of FOI among French citizens.

    See this presentation


    A change in the law for school starters in Scotland — through FOI

    Give Them Time logoPatricia Anderson (Give Them Time, Scotland)

    Patricia from the Give Them Time campaign speaks about how FOI requests, sent via WhatDoTheyKnow, helped them get the law changed so that more children in Scotland can benefit from more time at nursery school.

    Thanks to the campaign, from 2023 all children in Scotland who legally defer their school start date will be automatically entitled to a further year of nursery funding.

    See this presentation


     

    If you enjoyed that little lot, do sign up to our Research newsletter and we’ll let you know what we’re planning next. It’ll also be the way to ensure you’re one of the first to know about the new TICTeC Labs we’ve got in the pipeline!

  5. A decade and 10K FOI requests: happy birthday AskTheEU!

    Today is the annual International Day for Universal Access to Information.

    Transparency organisations all around the world are celebrating the Right To Know, as embodied in many countries’ FOI Acts: here at mySociety we’re getting ready for our special TICTeC FOI Show and Tell (it’s not too late to register, and you totally should!).

    Aptly, it’s also the tenth anniversary of the launch of AskTheEU, the Alaveteli site which allows anyone to send an FOI request to the institutions of the European Union. Many happy returns to this unique project, which is also celebrating its 10,000th full request.

    Back in 2011 we wrote: “AskTheEU will help NGOs, journalists and citizens to exercise their right to know at the European level“, while also noting the evergreen fact that “a successful Alaveteli site needs plenty of resources to keep it running: responding to legal requests, providing tech support, helping people to progress with difficult requests for information.”

    Well, it seems that any worries about the site’s viability were unfounded, as it’s survived very successfully as a project of AccessInfo for the past decade.

    Clearly, a lot has happened since AskTheEU’s launch, not least the UK’s departure from the EU. Do note that users living in the UK (or anywhere) can still submit requests to it, though; there’s no need to be a EU citizen to take advantage of the Right To Know in Europe, and the EU institutions, like all governmental bodies, certainly offer plenty of interesting documents to request.

    Need inspiration? Keep an eye on AskTheEU’s social media today as they’ll be highlighting some of the more notable requests from across the past decade, as well as celebrating FOI generally.

    To get things kicked off, they’re giving away some Pro accounts, which is definitely a cause for celebration all round. Why not see if you can get hold of one, and start an EU investigation today?

    Image: Imants Kaziļuns

  6. To defend FOI rights, we need a separate FOI Commissioner 

    Yesterday John Edwards, the government’s preferred candidate to be the next Information Commissioner, was questioned by the House of Commons’ DCMS committee.

    During this session, Mr Edwards made several comments that raised alarm bells for us. Generally, he seemed more concerned with hypothetical abuse of the system by the public, rather than the demonstrable behaviour of the authorities that he would be charged with regulating. He also expressed support for the idea of charging requesters (contrary to the ICO’s current position and rejected by the 2016 review).

    While it is not good that those were his instinctive reactions, the general sense is that he has not yet had a chance to become fully acquainted with Freedom of Information, despite it being a significant part of his future role. The bigger problem is that any potential candidate for the job (now or in the future) is likely to be in a similar position.

    The UK Information Commissioner is two roles joined into one. In other jurisdictions these would separately be called the Privacy Commissioner (who oversees data protection) and Information Commissioner (who oversees access to information laws). When the role was created, there was more of a balance between the two aspects, but the growing significance of data protection in a digital world has meant that this side of the role has increased in focus and funding. Currently, less than 10% of the funding the ICO receives is for Freedom of Information related work.

    Graph showing a divergence between ICO funding for data protection (much higher in recent years) and FOI (declining or static)

    While it is possible that some people exist who could handle both sides of the job equally well, recruiting with an emphasis on data protection minimises any focus on the FOI role.

    John Edwards is currently the Privacy Commissioner in New Zealand, where there is an Ombudsman who separately deals with the equivalent of Freedom of Information complaints. While Elizabeth Denham, the current UK Information Commissioner had prior experience of a joint role in British Columbia, her role at the national level in Canada was similarly on the privacy side.

    Here in the UK, this is likely to be a recurring issue for Freedom of Information. It has been positioned as a sideline to the ICO’s main priorities and something that new commissioners have to catch up on, rather than hitting the ground running with a clear sense of the problems inherent in the field.

    In our recent report, we argued for a separate and independent FOI Commissioner, mirroring the arrangement in Scotland. We dug into the historical reasons why the roles were joined, and found that it had resulted from uncertainty about different offices applying different ideas about what ‘personal data’ is. The solidification and internationalisation of data protection rules (which also helps create an international recruiting pool for the role) makes this far less of a concern now, while the same trend has reduced the prominence of FOI in the joint role.

    It is also our belief that the FOI Commissioner should be independent of the government. By this we mean that as a constitutional watchdog, the Commissioner should operate under the Officer of Parliament model, and receive oversight and funding from Parliament rather than the government. The current situation presents an obvious conflict of interest, where the government controls funding for its own regulator.

    Freedom of Information has survived direct challenges in this country and across the world, but the danger (and default trajectory) for our Right To Know is not that it is abolished, but that it becomes less effective as time goes on. State activity moves to private contractors and the act is not extended to follow them.  The lack of effective and well-funded enforcement from the ICO means increasingly open non-compliance, as public bodies discover loopholes that allow them to drag out responding to requests. The solutions to these problems are not difficult (and in many cases can borrow from processes in Scottish Freedom of Information legislation), but require the political will not just to defend the FOI act as it exists, but to argue for its role into the future.

    As we approach the UK’s 20 year anniversary of Freedom of Information in 2025, we believe that change is needed to reclaim the ground that has been lost, and to strengthen Freedom of Information as a continuing practical and effective tool of government accountability. To this end, we are actively seeking to work with interested organisations and stakeholders to safeguard our right to information and place it on a more sustainable footing. In the run up to the next election, expected in 2024, we hope to see parties from across the political spectrum include provisions to defend and improve FOI operation in their manifestos. We also hope to explore opportunities for FOI to flourish in the devolved nations. To keep up with our work, sign up to our mailing list.

  7. Freedom of Information as a tool for making cycle routes more accessible

    The Equality Act of 2010 requires that disabled people are not disadvantaged by any ‘provision, criterion or practice’. You might be familiar with its implications in the workplace or in providing customer services, but the law also applies to the public realm.

    If we’re thinking about streets, for example, certain clauses of this Act mean that councils have a duty to ensure that access is as easy for a disabled person as it is for anyone else.

    We’ve recently become aware of people making good use of our Freedom of Information site WhatDoTheyKnow to challenge cycle routes that are impassable for some, for example where a cyclist would have to dismount to get past, or where an adapted bike or tricycle would not fit through the space allowed.

    “I’m honestly shocked at how easily FOI can get results”

    The request-makers identify barriers to access, and ask the relevant authorities to confirm that all requirements of the Equality Act have been adhered to in their implementation, from the carrying out of an impact assessment to the making of ‘allowances and accommodations’ for those that need them.

    It’s easy to find such requests by searching for the term “Was an Equality Impact Assessment carried out at this location” on WhatDoTheyKnow, which brings up several examples.

    These FOI requests have been inspired by  a request-maker going by the name of Heavy Metal Handcyclist, who provides a template for others to use as an example — and whose WhatDoTheyKnow account shows him using the Act to very good effect himself, as for example with this request picking up on some obstructive barriers in Warrington. And he gets results: in this case the issue was dealt with constructively by the authority concerned; and a request to Warwickshire County Council will mean that some ill-placed new barriers in Clifton upon Dunsmore, Rugby will be removed:

    Tweet from the Heavy Metal Handcyclist as seen at https://twitter.com/CrippledCyclist/status/1418242775443808257

    We came across this little seam of activism thanks to an article by Jamie Wood, in which the author writes affectingly about how cycling has returned to him some degree of the independence and mobility that his Multiple Sclerosis took away: he goes on to say, however, that there are frequent frustrations in the form of paths blocked by thoughtlessly-placed bollards, posts and barriers that he can’t navigate on his tricycle. Constructive engagement and polite letters to his local council didn’t do the trick, and so he turned to activism.

    “In the vast majority of cases, an FOI request should be enough, with no need to resort to legal means.”

    Describing his learning curve, Jamie pointed to the Heavy Metal Handcyclist as well as to this letter on Doug Paulley’s DART website  — which brings us full circle, as Doug is a WhatDoTheyKnow volunteer as well as an accomplished campaigner on accessibility for disabled people.

    As Doug quotes on his site, court cases have established that:

    The policy of the (Equality Act) is not a minimalist policy of simply ensuring that some access is available to the disabled: it is, so far as reasonably practicable, to approximate the access enjoyed by disabled persons to that enjoyed by the rest of the public.

    We admire the level of knowledge and clarity in these requests and we hope that they bring good results. At the same time, we recognise that this sort of work shouldn’t be left purely to the disabled people who are affected by blockades and impediments: we can all keep an eye open for where such barriers may be making paths impassible for some. And, thanks to the examples linked to in this post, it is simple enough for us all to follow their lead.

    As Jamie says, “It’s the Equality Act itself that can be only be used by people directly affected; anyone can make an FOI request”.

    He also points us towards this report from the York Cycle Campaign, released last week, identifying more than 30 places across the city where the requirements of Equality Act have not been met. Kate Ravilious from the campaign says, “If City of York Council does not step into gear and rectify the problems, they will be forced to take legal action, which could end up with the council having to fork out as much as £50,000 for every person that pursues action via the small claims court.”

    But Jamie points out that Freedom of Information is a softer and sometimes more effective first step towards getting these issues fixed: “In the vast majority of cases, an FOI request should be enough, with no need to resort to legal means.”

    The Heavy Metal Handcyclist agrees:

    “Whilst it is true that local authorities continue to install barriers to access despite their S.149 obligations, it is entirely possible to force almost immediate removal of barriers both new and predating the EA2010 by using a sufficiently pointy FOI request. To date, only one authority has needed further legal action, with officers in almost all the others immediately recognising the problem and addressing the issue quickly. I’m honestly shocked at how easily FOI can get results in this regard.

    “WhatDoTheyKnow has been an excellent tool to catalogue and track FOI requests, particularly with regards to time limits.”

    Image: York Cycle Campaign

  8. One month in: how the refusals tool is helping people appeal FOI requests

    A couple of weeks ago, we announced that we’d added new functionality to WhatDoTheyKnow to help people challenge FOI refusals. In fact, this tool had been quietly rolled out at the end of May, giving us a little time to ensure everything was working before we shared it. 

    It tries to detect which exemptions were applied where information was withheld, and provides advice on next steps. This might involve making a revised request or asking for clarification, and the tool can also provide text fragments to use in a request for an internal review of the decision. 

    It is early days, but just in the last month users have sent 158 requests for internal review after seeing this advice. Most of these are still waiting for a reply, but around a third (16) of complete internal reviews have led to an improvement in the amount of information released. This is above the monthly average for the last year, but we need to wait for more data to determine if this will represent a sustained increase in the success of appeals. 

    As time goes on, we will be able to examine whether specific bits of advice or challenges to particular kinds of refusals are more likely to be successful than others. The goal is to give requesters the knowledge required to successfully challenge incorrect use of exemptions, and increase the percentage of internal reviews made through WhatDoTheyKnow that successfully lead to more information being released, either through increasing the quality and substance of appeals, or reducing appeals where exemptions have been applied correctly. 

     

    Process Requests
    Total number of times refusal advice acted on 415
    Total number of times internal review submitted after acting on refusal advice 158
    Internal review requested and awaiting response 108
    Internal review completed, no improvement 34
    Internal review completed, improvement over last status 16

     

    Image: Waldemar Brandt

  9. Lost in Europe: a cross-border investigation into missing children

    It’s a painful subject to think about — children lost and unaccounted for as they migrate across Europe — but it’s also one that it’s vital to monitor and quantify. 24 investigative journalists from 12 European countries have taken on the job, coming together in the crossborder Lost in Europe (LIE) investigation.

    According to their findings, 18,292 unaccompanied child migrants went missing in Europe between January 2018 and December 2020 – that’s around 17 children slipping off the records every day, often into the world of crime, human trafficking and prostitution.

    Liset Hamming is an investigative journalist who also runs Wob-Knop, the Netherlands’ Freedom of Information site, on our Alaveteli platform. Last year, she messaged to say that a contact of hers within LIE was starting a new investigation.

    Liset would be assisting with sending FOI requests to immigration and border enforcement authorities in 16 European countries. We knew right away that the international Alaveteli network could provide exactly the help required.

    We made introductions to partners in Croatia, Czech Republic, France, Germany, Sweden, Hungary, Belgium, Greece and of course the WhatDoTheyKnow team here in the UK. Then via our partners at Ask the EU help was offered for filing requests in Italy and Spain.

    These experts were able to help Liset navigate the individual requirements of the FOI regime in each country, pointing toward the relevant authority and translating or refining the wording of the request being made. In some other countries, Liset made her own contacts.

    Local knowledge

    There’s a surprising amount you need to know before you start making FOI requests abroad. The Alaveteli network contacts were indispensable for their ability to answer questions about their local regimes: what law the requests would go under, what authority to request to, whether people from outside the country were legally eligible to make requests, what the deadlines were for responses and what recourse could be taken if these weren’t met. The information gathered from the various in-country contacts was put together with the preliminary research Lost in Europe had done into the availability of documents on child immigration numbers.

    Based on all of this, the requests took two different forms: in some places, it was clear exactly which document type needed to be asked for; while in others this was harder to pin down, and so the requests were more exploratory.

    This March, LIE ran a data bootcamp for their member journalists, data scientists and designers, as well as any others (including ourselves and our Alaveteli partners) who were involved in the investigation. They had three objectives for this two-day event:

    • Analysis of the most recent statistics, figures, calculation methods and the exchange of data between different EU countries
    • Identifying gaps in European laws, procedures and regulations in the field of children’s rights and migration
    • Pinning down design, communication and clear storytelling around figures and maps, for a broad public readership

    The discussions and outcomes of this intensive meetup were invaluable, and so far it has directly resulted in news stories across major publications in the Netherlands, Italy, Germany, Greece, France, Romania and the UK.

    In the meantime the 16 requests have been filed and are in progress. The first responses from authorities are ‘dripping in’, as Liset puts it. Some FOI proceedings can take a while, as anyone who ever took up a similar challenge will confirm.

    The investigation is still in progress, and you can follow along with its latest file here. As a tangible sign of the value already being uncovered, this strand of LIE’s work won first place in the global IJ4EU Impact Award for cross border journalism. We’re very glad to have been able to assist in this small way to a vital investigation.

    The requests

    Image: Aude-Andre Saturnio

  10. A tool to help challenge FOI refusals — now on WhatDoTheyKnow

    If you’ve recently received a refusal to a Freedom of Information request you sent through WhatDoTheyKnow, you might have noticed our latest feature.

    As mentioned in a previous blog post we’ve been working on functionality to help people challenge refusals, and the first iteration of this is up and running.

    You might now see an automated notice above a refusal, identifying which exemption may have been applied. These are visible only to the person who made the request, and do not appear in every case; see more about that below.

    An alert saying "Bristol City Council may have refused all or part of your request under Section 43, Section 41, and Section 42. Get help to challenge it."

    Click ‘get help to challenge it’ and you’ll be presented with a series of questions about your request and the reply you received from the authority, to see whether there is any scope for a challenge.

    questions about the FOI request, including 'is the information that you requested commercial in nature?' and 'is the information yuo requested a contract?' from WhatDoTheyKnow

    Your answers to these questions will generate tailored advice on what to do next, also presenting you with editable fragments of text that you can use to get started with any challenge or request for clarification.

    Dear Bristol City Council, Please pass this on to the person who conducts Freedom of Information reviews. I am writing to request an internal review of Bristol City Council's handling of my FOI request 'property purchase - valuations, terms of sale and contracts'. As you may be aware, ICO guidance states that when applying a Section 43 exemption, an authority "must show that because [the information] is commercially sensitive, disclosure would be, or would be likely to be, prejudicial to the commercial activities of a person (an individual, a company, the public authority itself or any other legal entity)". This response does not appear to have included such details, so I am requesting that you conduct an internal review, and, if the exemption is upheld, show how the release would be prejudicial to commercial activities, and of whom.

    What’s the thinking?

    WhatDoTheyKnow has always existed to make it easier for anyone to make an FOI request, without having to be an expert in the law.

    We think we’ve got the initial part of that down pretty well (with the obvious caveat that there are always improvements to be made) — but up until now we haven’t directed a lot of attention to what happens after the authority responds.

    Even for seasoned users of FOI, but especially for those new to the whole area, it is daunting to receive a refusal from an authority. By their nature, FOI responses contain some legalese, and this can be enough to make the best of us think, ‘Ah well, they probably know more about it than I do’ — and give up.

    But another way of looking at it is that this legalese is there to help you. A body can’t just turn down your request because it doesn’t want to answer it: it has to say which exemption it is using under FOI law. If you know your way around that law, it is the key to understanding what to do next, and in fact, it’s this legal bumph that our code will be using to check what questions to ask you.

    Before we introduced this intervention, a good number of users just gave up when they received a refusal from an authority — and that’s fair enough. We’d been directing users to a generic help page with details of what options are broadly available for challenging a refusal, but only the very determined would take it further.

    And as we mentioned in our previous post, 22% of internal reviews (where you ask the request to be examined again, by a different member of staff at the authority) result in the full or partial release of information. It’s clear that bodies can, and do make mistakes sometimes.

    Our new functionality helps you discern where that might have happened, and put together a decent challenge.

    How it works

    When an FOI request is refused, the authority have to give the reason, and this has to be one of a set number of ‘exemptions’ — clauses in the FOI Act that list the circumstances under which an authority is not obliged to disclose information.

    Our code scans the response to identify which exemption/s have been applied. Remember, though, that this is just an automated best guess, so it’s still very much up to the user to check whether it’s correct!

    At the next stage the user will be asked: “Did the authority mention any of these exemptions when refusing your request?” and there is the chance to remove exemptions if they’re wrong, and add any that haven’t been picked up by the code.

    Checkboxes on WHatDoTheyKnow asking the user to confirm which exemption their request has ben refused under

    Then, informed by guidance from the Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) for the identified exemption, we present a series of questions which should help you understand whether there are grounds for asking for an internal review.

    Depending on your answers, you’ll see some advice. This might simply tell you that the exemption seems to have been applied correctly; it might advise you to ask the authority to clarify areas where their response is unclear, or it could point out where it appears that there has been an error on the part of the authority.

    Image saying 'you may have grounds for an internal review' followed by four sentences saying much the same, on WhatDoTheyKnow

    Note the various variations on ‘you have/may have grounds for an internal review’ — this is because each conclusion has been generated by a different response to one of the questions. In this example, the user has four different potential challenges to the refusal:

    • The exemption seems to have been incorrectly applied
    • The authority hasn’t provided some evidence that they should have
    • The user has identified something about the contract that means the exemption shouldn’t have been applied to every part of it
    • The authority hasn’t demonstrated that disclosure would be prejudicial to business interests

    Whew! But if that’s a little overwhelming, there’s still some more support for the user.

    Click ‘request an internal review’ and you’ll be shown some fragments of text you can copy and paste into your reply to help you start composing it. These are just prompts: they can be edited or overwritten to reflect your specific situation, and to allow you to express yourself in the language you’d ordinarily use.

    Selection of different types of challenge to an FOI refusal, on WhatDoTheyKnow, eg "The authority refused to disclose the requested information on the grounds that it would be prejudicial to business interests, but has not demonstrated the likelihood of this prejudice occuring. As you may be aware, ICO guidance states that when applying a Section 43 exemption, an authority "must show that because [the information] is comme... Read more"

    Know your exemptions

    Some exemptions are used far more commonly than others: for example we discovered when we began this work that the most often applied was the Section 12 exemption, ‘where cost of compliance exceeds appropriate limit’ — that is, responding in full would cost the authority too much in terms of expense or manhours.

    Other common exemptions are Section 14 (turning down ‘vexatious’ or repeated requests for the same information); Section 40 (where the release would contain someone’s personal information); and Section 21 (where the information is already available elsewhere).

    It’s worth knowing basic facts around exemptions: for example, if some of the information you’ve requested is covered by an exemption (say, a portion of it would contain personal information) the authority should still be releasing the rest. And if they tell you it’s available elsewhere, they should also do all they can to point you to the relevant place.

    Some exemptions require a public interest test, where the authority must weigh up whether it is more beneficial for society as a whole to release the information than it is beneficial under the conditions of the exemption to refuse it. An example may be where the information relates to the UK’s defence capability, but would reveal something so important for the public to be aware of that any potential threat to national security is outweighed.

    For this first stage of the new functionality, we covered the 13 most commonly used exemptions out of the full 27. Also, our tool might miss some exemptions. If that’s the case, or the exemption can’t be identified, you simply won’t see anything on the request.

    Sharing knowledge

    The ICO provides detailed guidance for authorities about each exemption, and this has also proved invaluable for us as we strive to point out where there may be room for requesting a review. As we’ve learned while creating this functionality, law is not precise: in many cases it is open to interpretation, and legal challenges at tribunal act as precedents, helping to consolidate its exact meaning. The ICO guidance is basically an attempt to unify such interpretation.

    But the average person may not have the time to read up on the ins and outs of how this exemption or that should be applied, so we hope our sets of questions will give you a short cut towards understanding whether there’s a valid challenge to be made. Eventually, we hope it’s not too bold to suggest, the functionality may even increase the public’s understanding of FOI.

    We are, of course, keen that this initiative doesn’t place an extra burden on authorities. The mechanism should work just as well in pointing out where the authority has acted correctly, and so discourage pointless challenges.

    Where requests for internal reviews are made, the result should be that they are better informed, clearly structured and based on valid challenges. In time, this feature may even have the knock-on effect that authorities are incentivised to improve their initial responses, taking more care that exemptions are correctly applied.

    We know this isn’t perfect yet, so if you’re from an authority and you want to share feedback, please do let us know. And if you’re a member of the public and you see anomalies in the wording or interface, please do also get in touch. You can contact us here.

    Image: Andrew Fleming (CC by-nc/2.0)