Our WhatDoTheyKnow.com service makes it really easy to request information from public bodies: all you need to do is describe the information you are seeking, send your request, and the authority provides it to you.
At least, that’s what happens when everything goes smoothly.
The default case
When you request information, the authority generally has two duties under the FOI Act:
- They must confirm or deny whether the information is held
- If they do hold it, they must disclose it.
But, there are circumstances – called exemptions – where the authority can withhold the information, or where they might not even state whether or not they have it at all.
Understanding which exemptions have been applied will also help you to understand what to do next.
The authority have confirmed they hold the information, but refused to release it
Why have they refused?
If your request is refused, the authority must say which exemption/s allow them to do so — have a good read of their response, and find out which one/s have been applied.
You’re looking for a section number that refers to the part of the Act that explains why they can refuse. You can check on FOIwiki’s handy table for the full list of exemptions.
Generally, when citing an exemption, the authority will also include the relevant text from the FOI Act, but if not, you can check it for yourself in the actual wording of the Act.
They did not cite an exemption
Authorities must say which exemption applies to your request — so, double-check that they haven’t done so (look in any attachments as well as in their main email), and once you are certain that they haven’t, write back and ask them to confirm which exemption they are using. Here’s an example of that in action.
If you want to, you can quote the part of the FOI Act which says that they must do this: Section 17 (1)b:
A public authority which, in relation to any request for information, is to any extent relying on […] a claim that information is exempt information must […] give the applicant a notice which—
- states that fact,
- specifies the exemption in question, and
- states (if that would not otherwise be apparent) why the exemption applies.
They did cite an exemption
Once you know which exemption has been used, you are in a good position to examine whether it has been correctly applied .
FOIwiki’s table lists all the exemptions that an authority can use, and includes some technical details about how they can be applied.
Some exemptions have very little room for appeal and the decision to apply them is obvious: for example, the Ministry of Defence won’t release plans for an upcoming battle in a time of war, making a request for this type of information pretty futile.
Others rely much more on the judgement of the authority who’s dealing with your request. Under Section 38, for example, a request can be turned down because it might ‘endanger the physical or mental health of any individual’– but in many cases, assessing how someone’s mental health might be affected by the release of information must require a certain amount of prediction.
Some exemptions allow an authority to use additional tools for assessing whether or not to release information:
- A public interest test
- A prejudice test
They said they’d applied a Public Interest Test
Some exemptions, known as ‘qualified exemptions’, require the authority to apply a Public Interest Test. This may give you more opportunity to ask for a review.
You can check the details of your exemption, and whether it’s qualified, in FOIwiki’s table.
In short, a public interest test sees the authority trying to weigh up the benefit to the general public of the information being released against the safeguards that the exemption is trying to provide, and decide which has more weight. The ICO provide good information about Public Interest Tests, with several examples of how they have been applied in the past.
If you think you can demonstrate that the Public Interest Test has come down on the wrong side of this weighing up exercise, you may want to ask for an internal review — see the end of this article for next steps.
They said they’d applied a Prejudice Test
Some exemptions, called ‘prejudice based’ exemptions, require a prejudice test. Again, this might also give you more opportunity to ask for a review.
You can check the details of your exemption, and whether it’s prejudice-based, on FOIwiki’s table.
Generally speaking, it’s applied to exemptions which seek to protect certain interests — for example, Section 29 of the Act allows exemption where release might do harm to the economy.
The prejudice test is a way for the person dealing with the request to check that the perceived threat is ‘real, actual or of substance’, and that there’s a reasonable risk that the release would cause the harm that the exemption is trying to protect against. There is a good explanation in the ICO guidelines.
As with Public Interest Tests, if you can demonstrate that the Prejudice Test has come up with a decision that is arguably misapplied, you may want to ask for an internal review — see the foot of this article for next steps.
They didn’t apply a Public Interest test
This probably means that the exemption is “absolute”, which makes it hard to challenge.
First, check on FOIwiki’s table that the Section the authority is using is an absolute exemption.
If it is:
- You might like to consider how cut-and-dried it is that the information falls within the class that the exemption protects. If it is clearly covered by the exemption (for example you have asked for information that is self-evidently provided to the authority by Special Forces) then there isn’t much point in going any further. But suppose you have been told that, under Section 21, the information is accessible via other means. Section 21 is an Absolute exemption but may be open to a challenge if, for example, there are circumstances which prevent you from accessing the information.
If it’s not:
- Ask the authority what public interest test they applied (or more details of how they applied it).
The authority won’t confirm or deny whether they hold the information
Why won’t they confirm or deny?
If confirming or denying whether the information is held would actually reveal exempted information in itself, then the authority may refuse to do so.
You can read more about this in the ICO’s guidance.
Can I do anything if they ‘neither confirm nor deny’?
Yes — you can challenge this stance if you have reason to believe that confirming or denying that they hold the information would not reveal exempted information in itself. However, it can be a time-consuming and potentially difficult route to take, and even if you are successful in getting the authority to confirm that they have the information, you may then find that an exemption is then applied, taking you practically back to square one.
If you still want the information you’ve requested, there are some general tactics you can use when faced with an exemption:
- Reduce the scope of your request: Check the exemption cited and, if possible, modify your request to circumvent it.
- Ask for an internal review: if you think the exemption, public interest test or prejudice test has been wrongly applied, you can ask for another member of staff to assess your request and whether you should have received a full, or partial, response.
- Appeal to the ICO: If you’ve had an internal review and still think the decision was wrong, you may make an appeal to the Information Commissioner’s Office.
Read more about all of these routes on our guidance page.
And here are some other useful links from the Information Commissioner’s Office:
- Guidance to authorities on when requests may be refused
- Guidance for writing a refusal notice
- Guidance on the public interest test
Finally, for now
The ideal is, of course, to submit a request which does not trigger an exemption, as clearly this saves everyone’s time. You can see our advice on writing responsible and effective requests here.
That said, full or partial refusals are not an uncommon occurrence — it’s totally routine for FOI responses to have some material removed (usually personal information such as names and roles of junior officials, or material identifying members of the public), or to turn the request down completely.
There are just over 25 exemptions listed in the Act (the exact number depends on how you count subsections and variants), removing the obligation for bodies to provide information in categories as diverse as any and all communications with members of the Royal Family, to commercial interests and trade secrets — and all sorts of things in between.
We’ll be examining the various exemptions available to authorities and suggesting ways in which you can avoid them. Keep an eye on our blog — and we’ll also link to posts from this post as we publish them.
Image: Scott Warman
The mySociety team have found it increasingly hard to concentrate on work this afternoon, as the numerical counter on WhatDoTheyKnow’s homepage crept ever closer to the 500,000 mark… and at 4:56pm today, the milestone request was sent off. It was to Mid Devon District Council asking for the costs of implementing and maintaining flood defences.
WhatDoTheyKnow has long been mySociety’s most successful site, if you count success by the number of users. Every month, between 500,000 and 600,000 people pay a visit. Some of them submit a request, contributing to the total of ~2,700 made monthly; others come to access the information released by authorities and published in WhatDoTheyKnow’s ever-growing archive of public knowledge.
The site’s success can be ascribed to its simple formula of making it very easy to send an FOI request, which is published online along with the response it receives. The idea of putting the whole FOI process in public was resisted in some quarters during the site’s infancy — indeed, even the concept of responding by email rather than by post was fought against.
But the site, launched soon after the FOI Act came into force in the UK, has gone on to become an accepted part of the country’s landscape, and we’d like to think we’ve played a part in shaping attitudes — and how the Act is implemented.
The requirement for authorities to respond via email has now been enshrined in Ministry of Justice guidance. WhatDoTheyKnow itself is explicitly mentioned as a valid vehicle for FOI requests in the ICO’s documentation, and in 2017 an independent commission even recommended that publishing responses should be ‘the norm’.
The site clearly meets a need. And that need isn’t specific to the UK, as proven by the fact that the open source software on which WhatDoTheyKnow runs, Alaveteli, has also been picked up and is being used to run more than 25 other Freedom of Information sites around the world.
Finally, never let us miss the chance to praise the volunteer team who keep WhatDoTheyKnow running, helping users with their requests, setting site policies and dealing with issues such as accidental data releases from authorities. Without these knowledgeable and dedicated people, we simply wouldn’t be able to provide this service.
And now – onwards to the next 500K!
WhatDoTheyKnow currently has no dedicated funding, and is run by volunteers. If you’d like to see it reach the million-request milestone then why not make a donation?Donate now
Image: Bernard Hermant (Unsplash)
Today is International Right To Know Day.
Right to Know Day was started back in 2002 by international civil society advocates, and has since been officially adopted by UNESCO with the more formal title of ‘International Day for the Universal Access to Information’.
To mark this day I wanted to highlight some of the reasons why having the Right to Know/access to official information is so important, and give examples to illustrate these reasons.
So, here goes:
The Right To Know helps fight corruption and exposes wrongdoings
Being able to access information held by public authorities allows citizens to uncover potential mismanagement of public funds, and abuses of public policies and laws.
Some relevant examples of this include when police use banned restraint techniques in prisons and immigration centres, when government departments miss their own targets and when campaigning groups break electoral law by spending too much money on their campaigns.
The Right To Know helps citizens hold their public authorities and governments to account
Since the introduction of the FOI Act, we all have the opportunity to question the status quo and point out when things just aren’t right.
Like when one dedicated citizen used her Right to Know to make sure schools, local education authorities and the Department for Education were taking the issue of asbestos in schools and the health and safety of teachers and pupils seriously.
Or one of our WhatDoTheyKnow volunteers using his Right to Know to uncover that many councils are not doing the necessary administration work in order to be able to fine taxi drivers who refuse to accept disabled passengers, and therefore implement anti-discrimination law. Holding authorities to account so they do implement this is really important, otherwise discrimination against wheelchair users may continue to get worse.
The Right To Know helps citizens get useful information that matters to them
Sometimes the information you need isn’t freely or easily available, so using your Right to Know to get that information into the public arena is a great idea.
People have used their Right to Know to get information on when museums are free to visit, where you can post your letters and where you can find a toilet, to name a few examples. All useful information for them personally, but also for the rest of society as well!
The Right To Know helps citizens find out what’s going on in their local communities
It’s important to know what’s going on in your local area so you can get involved, raise objections, think of solutions…or just for curiosity’s sake.
These examples show how people have used their Right to Know to discover plans for local community sports stadiums and facilities, the number of homeless people in the area, and plans for housing developments.
The Right To Know helps citizens get things changed for the better
There are several instances of requests leading to tangible change that make improvements to people’s lives.
For example using the Right to Know led to the exposure of vital information which helped lead to wages going up in one of the UK’s biggest care home operators, and Transport for London changing their attitude to cyclists’ rights.
The Right To Know helps taxpayers find out how their money is spent
Do you ever wonder how your hard earned taxes are being spent? Using your Right to Know uncovers all sorts of interesting, and sometimes controversial, expenditure.
For example the NHS spent £29 million on chaplains in 2009/10, in 2008/09 Birmingham City Council spent £53,000 on bottled water for its staff and Greater Manchester Police spent £379,015 on informants in 2009/10.
Having this information open for all to see sometimes leads to changes in how public authorities spend their budgets.
For example Birmingham City Council went on to change their water policy so they now connect water coolers directly to mains water to save money and resources. This may not have happened if it wasn’t for an active citizen using their Right to Know to reveal this information, and therefore prompt a positive change.
There are plenty more reasons why having the Right to Know is important, but these are the highlights for me. Fundamentally, the Right to Information empowers citizens to be active members of society so they can work towards creating a more fair and just world.
So celebrate your Right to Know, on this day and every day, as it’s an incredibly useful right to have.
Remember, using our WhatDoTheyKnow website makes the process of asking public authorities for information really easy and you can browse what other people have already asked for and the responses they received, so why not check it out.
Last year, we launched WhatDoTheyKnow Pro, our service for journalists and other professional users of Freedom of Information.
As it’s a new venture, we’re keen to track whether it’s achieving everything we’d hoped for when first planning the service. One of the targets which we set, as a measure of success, is the number of impactful press stories generated by its use.
What might count as impactful? Well, that’s obviously up for debate, but loosely we’d say that we’re looking for news stories that have a wide readership, and uncover previously unknown facts, offer new insights, or bring about change.
Stories in the news
A couple of recent stories, generated through WhatDoTheyKnow Pro, have ticked at least a few of those boxes. At mySociety, we keep a position of political neutrality — our services are available to everyone of any persuasion, and we don’t campaign on any political issue — so we present these stories not to comment on their substance, but to note that they certainly fit the criteria above.
Brexit is clearly one of the most vital stories of our day, here in the UK, and while many might feel that we’ve had a surfeit of commentary on the issue, we can only benefit from understanding the facts.
One of WhatDoTheyKnow Pro’s earliest users, Jenna Corderoy, broke two important stories on that topic. First, that UK parliamentary standards watchdog IPSA is investigating Jacob Rees Mogg’s hard Brexit European Research Group over their second bank account and ‘informal governance structure’. This also ran in the Daily Mail.
Secondly (and this progresses a previous story about expenses – also uncovered thanks to Jenna’s use of WhatDoTheyKnow Pro) there is the widely-reported story that the Electoral Commission had misinterpreted laws around campaigning expenses, allowing Vote Leave to overspend. This was picked up by the BBC and Guardian, among many others.
No matter which side of the Brexit debate you support, hopefully you will agree that it benefits society as a whole to have the facts out in the open.
From FOI request to the national news
As a last thought: it’s interesting to us to see how a story grows from one or more FOI requests into something that hits the national news platforms. We think these stories were broken using a tried and true method that goes like this:
- As a journalist, campaigner or researcher, you might be investigating a topic. Perhaps you’ve heard a rumour that you’re hoping to substantiate, or perhaps you’re inquiring more deeply into a story that’s already in the air. Using FOI, you can retrieve facts and figures to bolster your investigation.
- Once you have a story, you can publish it in a smaller publication like Open Democracy, testing the water to see if it gains any traction.
- If the story is well-received there, it’s easy to approach larger outlets with the proof (in the form of FOI responses) underpinning it.
If you’re a journalist or you use FOI in your professional life and you’d like to try WhatDoTheyKnow Professional for yourself, then head over to whatdotheyknow.com/pro. Put in the code WELCOME18 when you sign up, and you’ll get 25% off your first month’s subscription.
Image: Roman Kraft
Coroners have a key role: they investigate deaths and make recommendations for making society safer, addressing issues which have led to potentially avoidable deaths.
Despite this, coroners, and coroners’ offices, are surprisingly not generally subject to the Freedom of Information Act.
At WhatDoTheyKnow.com we list many public bodies which don’t actually fall under Freedom of Information law as part of our advocacy for greater transparency.
While, over time, we’ve listed a number of coroners following requests from our users, volunteers Kieran and Richard have recently significantly improved our coverage and we now believe we comprehensively cover all coroners in the United Kingdom (in Scotland the Procurator Fiscal performs a role analogous to that of a coroner). You can view the full list on WhatDoTheyKnow.com.
What do coroners do?
According to the Government, coroners investigate deaths that have been reported to them, if it appears that:
- the death was violent or unnatural
- the cause of death is unknown, or
- the person died in prison, police custody, or another type of state detention
Coroners investigate to find out who has died; how, when, and where. They also, rather excitingly, have duties relating to treasure and inquests are held to determine if material found should be defined as such, as well as establishing who found it, where and when.
Coroners around the country have different systems and the degree to which they proactively publish their findings varies. So, as with requests to any public body, you should check their website — if they have one — to see if the information you are seeking has been published before making a request. Often a coroner’s website might be a page, or pages, within a local council site.
Coroners’ Reports to Prevent Future Deaths, and responses to them, are sometimes published by the Chief Coroner on the Judiciary website. Statistical information on the work of coroners is published by the Ministry of Justice.
What information might be requested from a coroner?
- Information about upcoming inquests and hearings.
- Even where a coroner publishes an online listing, you might want to seek more information so that cases of interest can be identified (asking for the “brief circumstances” of a death, for example).
- You might want to ask for information about upcoming inquests relating to those who died in state custody, or those relating to deaths in, or following, collisions on roads — or any other category.
- Or you could request the policies relating to publicising upcoming hearings, to determine if any online listing is comprehensive for example, or to find out if there are mechanisms in place to inform certain people about upcoming hearings. The content of recent notifications of upcoming hearings could be requested.
- The formal “Record of Inquest” relating to a particular case
- Reports to Prevent Future Deaths and responses to those reports Though note that, where a response is from a public body which is subject to Freedom of Information law, making a request to that body might be the best approach.
- Documents relating to particular investigations Regulation 27 of The Coroners (Investigations) Regulations 2013 states: “The coroner may provide any document or copy of any document to any person who in the opinion of the coroner is a proper person to have possession of it”.
- Information relating to reports of treasure received and the coroners’ findings in those cases.
- Information about decisions made by a coroner These can include decisions to exhume a body, discontinue an investigation, or to hold all, or part, of an inquest in private.
- Correspondence to/from the Chief Coroner and Deputy Chief Coroners.
- Information about the administration of the coroners’ service You might want to ask for information relating to a coroners’ pay, expenses, costs, fees charged, and for information on their performance. Some requests of this nature might be better directed to the relevant local council.
Pracicalities of requesting
While increased transparency surrounding the circumstances of deaths can lead to safety improvements throughout society — for example in our industrial workplaces, hospitals and roads — the families of the deceased do of course deserve sensitivity and respect. We’d suggest that all those requesting, or acting on, information from coroners which relates to people’s deaths should be considerate of that.
Coroners will not be used to receiving requests for information made in public via our service. If you are one of the first people to do so, there may be some initial difficulties. Please let us know how you get on: we would be interested in hearing about your experiences.
Over the last few months, we’ve been working with Hackney Council to design and make a Freedom of Information management system, imaginatively named FOI For Councils — and last time we left you with our pre-development thoughts. Well, now it’s up and running.
With this project, we had two main aims:
- first, to make the process really slick and easy to use for citizens;
- second, to reduce the quantity of FOI requests submitted, relieving some pressure on the Information Officers at the receiving end.
The solution we came up with achieves both those aims, and there’s one feature in particular that we’re super-excited about.
Case Management Integration
One of the development decisions taken early on was for the system to be a very lightweight layer, largely powered by the new Infreemation case management system that Hackney were in the process of commissioning.
Infreemation is targeted primarily at Information Officers, so there was no use in reinventing the wheel and building a heavy backend for our own FOI for Councils software.
Instead we built the FOI request process, using our experience in designing for citizens, and submitted the data directly to Infreemation using their API. This means that every request goes straight in to the case management system used by Information Officers, with no need for double entry; a set-up we’re very familiar with from our work integrating council systems with FixMyStreet.
Information Officers respond to the FOI request through Infreemation, and when they publish the response to Infreemation’s disclosure log, FOI for Councils can pull that response into its innovative suggestions engine, which we’ll discuss shortly.
All this means that Information Officers get to use the tools that are designed directly with them in mind, but citizens get the best experience possible for the process at hand, rather than trying to battle the typical generic forms offered by one-size-fits-all solutions.
On the user side of things we managed to reduce the process to a maximum of 6 screens for the entire process.
Throughout the whole user journey we ask for only three details: name; email address and then the actual request for information.
Each screen provides contextual help along the way, maximising the chances that the FOI request will be well-formed by the time it gets submitted.
Making the process intuitive for the people using it is a key factor in building citizens’ trust in an authority. Too often we see complex forms with terrible usability that almost seem designed to put people off exercising their rights.
So far, so good. But for us, the most interesting piece of the process is the suggestions step.
Before the citizen submits their request to the authority, we scan the text for keywords to see if anything matches the pool of already-published information.
If we find any matches, we show the top three to the citizen to hopefully answer their question before they submit it to the authority. This helps the citizen avoid a 20-day wait for information that they might be able to access immediately. If the suggestions don’t answer their question, the citizen can easily continue with their request.
Suggestions also benefit the authority, by reducing workload when requests can be answered by existing public information.
We’ve tried to make this suggestions step as unobtrusive as possible, while still adding value for the citizen and the authority.
The suggestions system is driven by two sources:
- Manually curated links to existing information
- The published answers to previous FOI requests
The curated links can be added to the suggestions pool by Information Officers where they spot patterns in the information most commonly requested, or perhaps in response to current events.
The intelligent part of the system though, is the automated suggestions.
As FOI for Councils integrates with the Infreemation case management system, we can feed the suggestion pool with the anonymised responses to previous requests where the authority has published them to the disclosure log.
By doing this the authority is making each FOI response work a little harder for them. Over time this automatic suggestion pool should help to reduce duplicate FOI requests.
FOI for Councils also analyses the number of times each suggestion is shown, clicked, and even whether the suggestion has prevented any additional FOI requests being made.
This allows Information Officers to see which information is being asked for, but where existing resources aren’t providing the information necessary to the citizen.
We’ll be keeping a keen eye on how this works out for Hackney, and we’ll be sure to report back with any insights.
As you’ll know if you read our first blog post from this project, we did originally envision a platform that would process Subject Access Requests as well as FOI. In the end this proved beyond the resources we had available for this phase of work.
For us, this has been a really instructive piece of work in showing how authorities can commission process-specific services that connect together to give everyone a better user experience.
If you’re responsible for managing FOI requests or data protection in your own public sector body and you’d like to talk about project in more detail, please get in touch at email@example.com.
WhatDoTheyKnow Pro is our Freedom of Information service for journalists, and campaigners, and we’ve recently rolled out some major changes to the request sidebar to make reading, navigating, and classifying Pro requests a lot easier.
Since the very first Alpha version of WhatDoTheyKnow Pro we’ve been receiving feedback from our users, which we have been feeding directly into our future development plans. The sidebar changes are the first round of changes that have come as result of direct Pro user feedback, and there will be more to follow.
In WhatDoTheyKnow a member of the public can send a Freedom of Information request to an authority, which they receive in the form of an email. The request, as well as any replies or follow up from the requester, or the authority, are published on WhatDoTheyKnow. If the request is made by a Pro user, they have the added option of making a request private for a limited time.
In the request process we observed the following:
- A new response from an authority goes to the bottom of the thread (the bottom of the page)
- The user interface for updating the status of a request is located at the top of the page (a request’s’ status is a way of keeping track of where it is in the request process – for example ‘awaiting response’, ‘needs clarification’, or ‘refused’)
- A longstanding or complicated request will often consist of many, many messages. So scrolling to the bottom of the page to read the most recent response, then back to the top to update its status involves a lot of interaction that we can remove.
We can’t say for sure that a user will always be at the bottom of the request thread when updating the status of a request, but we can safely assume they are sometimes.
For these changes we set ourselves the following goals:
- Speed up the process of updating the status of requests
- Improve the experience of navigating requests with a long history.
In previous research we established that a typical workflow for dealing with request responses is:
Get reply → Read reply → Take action (typically reply, or update the status of the request)
It’s a short, three step process, but a busy user catching up with a backlog may do this hundreds of times a day, so if we can optimise this workflow we can save a lot of time and frustration.
So what have we done?
For desktop users we’ve made the sidebar controls (where the ‘update status’ button is) “sticky”, so it will follow you as you scroll up and down the page, meaning you can update the request status from any position on the page. This really helps as requests get longer, as you no longer need to scroll back to the top to classify the latest response.
We’ve added new message navigation buttons. This is to enable you to move through a request thread message-by-message by clicking the up and down arrow buttons, or using the arrow keys on your keyboard. We’ve also added a counter so that it’s easier to see where you are in the list, and to go back and forth to specific messages.
We’ve also taken this opportunity to make some key information about the privacy of your request visible at all times (this was previously hidden behind a click), and to tweak the design of the sidebar – making it easier to read and removing some visual noise.
More to do
We’re looking at a way to add similar functionality to mobiles and other small screen devices. As screen space is limited it will require a separate design process.
We’re aware that the problems we’re trying to solve aren’t unique to our Pro customers, so if the features work, and are well received, we’ll be making a similar feature available to all WhatDoTheyKnow users in the future.
Keeping in mind that as our public users have different needs to our Pro users there are some design challenges to overcome beforehand. For example – the public request page has more features to help less-frequent users, because we’re keen to ensure that everyone can participate in the FOI process, not just experts. Conversely, Pro users are by their very nature more likely to require less guidance. We’re going to need to do more research on this shortly.
Got some feedback?
Whether you’re a WhatDoTheyKnow Pro customer or not, we’d love feedback on this feature — or any other. Drop us an email to firstname.lastname@example.org.
What can you do if you suspect your local council of financial misconduct?
One solution is to take a good hard look at their books; and thanks to the Local Audit and Accountability Act we all have the right to do just that for a set 30-day period each year.
The People’s Audit is a volunteer-run network of people who are keen to raise awareness of these little-known rights, in the belief that local government spending should be open and accountable to local people.
At the same time, they’re using the Act to good effect themselves, as they probe into spending anomalies in their own borough of Lambeth. They’ve found that the Freedom of Information Act has proved a useful complement to their auditing activity.
Investigating financial misconduct
We spoke to Ben Rymer from The People’s Audit to find out more. What exactly have they uncovered to date?
“Perhaps the most worrying finding was around the Fenwick Estate regeneration project in Clapham. The chosen supplier was almost £6 million more expensive than some others who tendered. This is a massive red flag as the likelihood of this sum being accounted for by quality of work alone is slim.”
There’s plenty more: Ben says they’ve made concerning findings around public housing, procurement and contract management and how major works are overseen, from possible price fixing between contractors to payments for work that was never done.
For example, the group say that a sampling of some of the housing blocks on the Wyvil Estate in Vauxhall indicates that the council paid its contractors for more than twice the number of repairs that were actually carried out.
They also claim to have found evidence of land in Kenningham and Streatham being sold to a private developer at a discount of at least £1m, without any competitive tender.
And another major finding was that costs for Lambeth’s new town hall — originally flagged as a money-saver for residents — have overrun by more than £50 million.
Two Acts working together
So, some substantial discoveries. Where does Freedom of Information come into the picture?
Ben says that the two Acts can be used together, to good effect. “The Local Audit Act requires access to be given to documents relating to costs incurred by the council in the preceding financial year. Once these have been obtained, FOI requests can then be targeted more precisely using the insights gained from such documents.”
But there is a slight snag: with the Local Audit Act offering access only within a specific period of 30 days each year, the FOI Act’s prescription that a response must arrive within ‘up to 20 working days’ does not allow for much wiggle room, especially if the FOI response generates more questions that might be answered through scrutiny of the accounts.
Ben says that unfortunately, responses to both Acts are often delayed, refused on the grounds that they would take too long (despite similar requests to other councils being processed without an issue) or just ignored. “An extreme example is our attempt to obtain the original budget for Lambeth’s new town hall, which we have now been trying to get hold of for 18 months!”.
But all of this notwithstanding, WhatDoTheyKnow has been a useful tool for the FOI side of the People’s Audit’s investigations: “It is an easy way to organise FOI requests, and the fact that it’s all in public means that other people can use the information in the responses — though we do also submit requests directly to the council.”
“One notable success was when one of the team received some emails via WhatDoTheyKnow following the audit inspection period in 2015 which showed that the council had agreed to install gyms in libraries months before any public consultation on the idea.”
So, the group have uncovered plenty of concerning information — but have they actually made a difference?
Ben says that they’ve achieved a good amount of local and national press attention. More importantly, they’ve seen an increased focus on financial issues among the people of Lambeth, especially in the run-up to the local elections in the spring. “Given that we are all volunteers with day jobs and families we think this is a pretty good result!”
And they believe that there’s been some effect within their local authority too, although not as wholehearted as they would have liked. “They have published their responses to citizen audit requests and are making more positive noises about the importance of transparency.
“However, they are also imposing arbitrary limits on the amount of information which citizens can request and have put in place ‘guidance’ around requests which we think may be intended to discourage further requests.”
If the Local Audit and Accountability Act is new to you, you may be wondering whether you should be using it yourself. The People’s Audit think you should consider it:
“Local Government financial scrutiny is really important and these powers need to be used to their fullest to prevent wasteful spending or corruption. Many people don’t realise that councils are often £1bn+ organisations, or that UK councils spend a total of over £92bn a year. Yet since the Audit Commission was abolished there is very little scrutiny of this spend.
“Many local newspapers have closed in recent years so citizen audits and hyperlocal publications have become more important.
“The powers are hugely underused currently. However what we’ve hopefully shown is that a group of committed individuals can use them to good effect.”
If you’d like to do the same, find out more on the People’s Audit website.
When you submit a Freedom of Information request, of course, you’re asking for a defined piece of information; a successful request is one where that information is provided.
Sometimes, though, a response will provide more than has been asked for.
We always appreciate it when a public servant goes above and beyond the call of duty, so when one of our volunteers happened across this response, it was passed around the team for everyone to enjoy. It’s helpful, factual, and fulsome, with far more background detail than was asked for.
Perhaps the most remarkable thing about this response, though, is that it’s from a body that is not actually obliged to respond to FOI requests at all.
Neighbourhood planning forums
Neighbourhood Planning Forums are defined on the Gov.uk website as bodies which “[give] communities direct power to develop a shared vision for their neighbourhood and shape the development and growth of their local area”.
They came into being in 2012 as a result of the Localism Act, and you can check whether there are any near you on this map.
Neighbourhood planning forums can help set the policies against which applications for planning permission are assessed, so they have a significant potential impact on local areas. It’s even possible for planning permission for a development to be granted proactively if this is proposed by a forum and approved in a referendum.
We’re not aware of any law which would make Neighbourhood Planning Forums subject to the Freedom of Information Act. But so far we’ve included eight of them on WhatDoTheyKnow.
Listing bodies not subject to FOI
Wait — so if they’re not obliged to respond to FOI requests, why are they included on WhatDoTheyKnow?
Well, we often add bodies with a substantial public role when we believe that people ought to be able to make transparent and visible requests for information to them.
For example, we listed Network Rail and the Association of Chief Police Officers on our site before they became subject to the Freedom of Information Act (though we’re disappointed that ACPO’s successor body the National Police Chiefs’ Council is not yet formally subject to FOI).
You can see more than 450 bodies which fall into this category (ie, they are not subject to FOI but we believe that they should be) on the site.
In the case of Neighbourhood Planning Forums, in addition to their clear, significant and public role, there are a couple more relevant factors:
First, the Environmental Information Regulations, which allow you to ask for information around environmental issues, cover a wider set of public bodies than FOI and we think it’s likely Neighbourhood Planning Forums are subject to those.
Additionally, many of them are parish or town councils which have been designated as the local planning forum. Parishes and town councils are certainly subject to FOI.
Adding more Neighbourhood Planning Forums
If you looked at the map we linked to earlier, you’ll have noticed that there are many more Neighbourhood Planning Forums than the eight we’ve listed on WhatDoTheyKnow — hundreds, in fact.
Unfortunately, an FOI request that one of our volunteers, Richard, made in 2016 to request details and email addresses of every Neighbourhood Planning Forum was turned down; otherwise we’d have used this information to add them all to the site.
If you’re keen to see these bodies made accessible for requests through WhatDoTheyKnow, there are a couple of ways you can help:
- We’re happy to add any more that are proposed to us — just fill in this form and give us any contact details as you can find. If you want to help us add more than a handful then get in touch and we’ll arrange a more effective way of working.
- If you can’t find any public contact details, you could try making an FOI request to your local planning authority — this is your local council responsible for planning, who are also the ones to designate neighbourhood planning forums in your area — to ask them for any forums’ contact details. If you obtain the contact details we will of course add them to WhatDoTheyKnow.
Back in March, we flagged up the ‘batch request’ feature we’d been working on for the WhatDoTheyKnow Pro service. Batch requests are now switched on for every WhatDoTheyKnow Pro subscriber, by default.
Batch enables users to send the same Freedom of Information request to several bodies at once, and we spent a substantial amount of time building and testing it because we wanted to be confident that the feature wouldn’t be abused — or if it was, that we could catch irregular behaviour.
Part of that testing has involved making the feature available to a limited number of WhatDoTheyKnow Pro subscribers, and loosely monitoring how it was used. We’re glad to say that during this four-month period, the activity was all acceptable.
However, we also realised that we should tighten up our terms and conditions to reflect our expectations around usage of Batch, and add some advice to our Help pages about making responsible and effective requests, both of which we’ve now done. We’ve also added some automatic notifications that will alert the team when multiple batch requests are made, so that we can check that everything is in order.
If you think Batch might be useful in your own work or campaigning, and you’d like to find out more about WhatDoTheyKnow Pro, you can do that here.
Image: Ankush Minda