Freedom of Information
Under the Freedom of Information Act everyone has the right to request information held by public sector organisations. Freedoms of Information laws are important for public accountability and the equal treatment of all people under the rule of law. They are important as an anti-corruption tool. And they are important to the legitimacy of democratically elected governments. For without access to government records, citizens cannot determine whether their leaders deserve re-election or whether they should be thrown out of office because of fraud or mismanagement.
What is a FOI Request
The Freedom of Information Act gives you the right to ask any public body for all the information they have on any subject you choose. Unless there’s a good reason, the organisation must provide the information within 20 working days. You can also ask for all the personal information they hold on you.
Everyone can make a request for information – there are no restrictions on your age, nationality, or where you live.
You can ask for any information at all, FOI laws cover a broad range of authorities and areas, from local councillors’ travel expenses, to correspondence from David Cameron, it is all potentially available – but some information might be withheld to protect various interests which are allowed for by the Act. If this is case, the public authority must tell you why they have withheld information. Commercially sensitive information is perhaps the most commonly used exemption, along with the exclusion that relates to the relevant authority not holding the information in the first place.
If you ask for information about yourself, then your request will be handled under the Data Protection Act.
How do I make a request?
The first step is to identify which body holds the information you are seeking. More often than not this can just be checked by a simple search of the relevant body’s website.
For example, if you want to ask a question about education, the body which holds the information you are looking for could be a school, local council, government agency or government department. So it’s worth doing a little bit of initial research just to make sure you are asking the right people.
I know who to ask, what do I do next?
Once you have identified which body might hold the information you require, the next step is to formally lodge a FOI request.
Every public body has a duty to make details of their FOI schemes available on their websites, and the vast majority do. They provide an email address or contact form to submit requests to – Poole Council – Bournemouth Council
However it is advisable to make your request via What Do They Know who track your request for you, send email notifications of any updates and advise procedures to follow if your request is refused or has insufficient information. They also provide links for your request to be shared online.
If you decide to use What Do They Know you need to ‘Sign up’ to their site using a valid email address. Go to ‘Make a Request’, enter the govt department or local authority the FOI is for, click on ‘Search’ and then the relevant body and then ‘Start’. You can then populate the relevant fields, the details of your request and follow the site’s instructions.
How should I phrase the request?
There are no rules over how you should word a request; but the basic principle is to try and keep FOI requests as clear and precise as possible. This makes it easier for the public body to respond, and makes sure they actually answer the right questions.
Some tips would be to include specific timescales in your request, for example, if you are asking for correspondence, limit it to a particular period. Referring to financial years rather than calendar years is also useful too, as it is how the majority of public bodies structure their systems.
What happens after I’ve made a request?
Soon after you have submitted your request, you should receive an acknowledgement. The relevant authority then has 20 working days to respond to this inquiry. However, this deadline can be extended, but the body should let you know about the extension in advance.
Will it cost me anything?
No, not unless you want it to. FOI laws state that public bodies have to provide a certain amount of information “free of charge”. This period covers up to three day’s work, at a theoretical cost of up to £600 for the authority.
Therefore, unless your request is particularly onerous or difficult to provide, it is likely that the majority of requests can be provided without any cost to the requester. If your request is deemed to go over the “free of charge” limit, the authority will ask you whether you are prepared to pay a fee before progressing with the work.
What happens if my request is rejected?
The relevant authority will provide you with a reason for why the request has been turned down. If you are not happy with the decision you can ask the authority to review its decision. If you are not satisfied with the outcome of the review – then you can complain to the Information Commissioner.
A petition is a document that opposes a particular policy or action that an authority (whether it’s a local council, a school, a company, central Government etc) has taken or plans to take, with a list of signatures – which is intended to demonstrate how much support there is for your position. It is debateable how effective petitions are; but nothing ventured – nothing gained.
In the internet age, online petitioning has made the process far easier. There are a variety of websites that provide online petition tools, below are just a few:
It is also worthwhile joining 38 Degrees who campaign on national issues and contact their members for them to decide which issues should be pushed – “38 Degrees brings you together with other people to take action on the issues that matter to you and bring about real change in the UK.”
Another option is to create an e-petition which enables you to create an online petition about anything that the government is responsible for and if it gets at least 100,000 signatures, it will be considered for debate in the House of Commons.
Members of Parliament
Find out how your MP voted
TheyWorkForYou lets you find out what your MP is doing in your name and how they voted on Bills etc, read debates, written answers, see what’s coming up in Parliament, and sign up for email alerts when there’s past or future activity on someone or something you’re interested in.
Contact your MP
MPs have public contact details so their constituents can get in touch. In most cases you can write, phone, fax, email or meet. MPs will generally only act on behalf of their constituents, so check you are contacting the MP who represents your constituency.
Listed below are contact details for our local MPs
Tobias Elwood – Conservative – Bournemouth East
Post: The House of Commons, London SWIA 0AA or via Bournemouth East Conservative Association, Haviliand Road West, Bournemouth BH1 4JW
Phone: 0207 219 4349 via Bournemouth East Conservative Association 01202 397047
Email: Tobias Elwood email@example.com or via website contact form
Conor Burns – Conservative – Bournemouth West
Post: House of Commons, London SW1A 0AA or via Bournemouth West Conservative Association, 135 Hankinson Road, Winton, Bournemouth BH9 1HR
Phone: 0207 219 7021 or via Bournemouth West Conservative Association 01202 533553
Email: firstname.lastname@example.org or via website contact form
Robert Symes – Conservative – Poole
Post: House of Commons, London SW1A 0AA or via Poole Conservatives, 38 Sandbanks Road, Poole BH14 8BX
Phone: 0207 219 4601 or via Poole Conservatives 01202 739922
Email: email@example.com or firstname.lastname@example.org
Annette Brooke – Lib Dem – Mid Dorset & North Poole
Post: 14 York Road, Broadstone BH18 8ET or House of Commons, London SW1A 0AA
Phone: 0207 219 8193 or 01202 693555
Email: email@example.com or firstname.lastname@example.org
Christopher Chope – Conservative – Christchurch
Post: 18a Bargates, Christchurch BH23 1QL or House of Commons, London SW1A 0AA
Phone: 0207 219 5808 or 01202 474949
Email: email@example.com or firstname.lastname@example.org
If you have trouble getting through to your MP, try the House of Commons switchboard on 0207 219 3000 and ask for your MP by name.
If you wish to contact a government minister in connection to their ministerial responsibilities please use the contact facilities on their departmental website. Check our directory of government ministers and their departments.
Meeting your MP
You are entitled to have a face to face meeting with your MP. You can find out when your MP has their surgery by checking their web site, by telephoning their office, or it may be in your local paper. You will need to book an appointment to meet your MP.
If you are going to go to an MP’s surgery do your home work. If possible practice with a non technical friend so you have experienced what it is like, and the kinds of questions a non technical person will ask. It may help to take a sheet of paper with a small number of bullet points on it.
Keep discussions simple, and always be polite, even if your MP does not agree with your point.
Remember that attending surgeries are a powerful way of delivering a message to your MP, and can have a lot of impact.
If you have written to your MP before you go to see him/her, do not be surprised if he/she has a copy of your letter and a copy of any document you pointed to in your letter.
Don’t exaggerate, be insulting, arrogant or invent conspiracies. Don’t make threats “if you don’t do what I say I won’t vote for you”. MPs, regardless of the size of their majority are not swayed by this one, and take it as a challenge. If threats from the people with the majority view worked, MPs would have banned abortion and reintroduced hanging years ago. They will often vote against the general consensus, and it’s your job to persuade, not to threaten.
Be specific. Don’t just have a general moan. Detail exactly why you are unhappy with a particular aspect of a Bill. Show you know your subject, but if you don’t know some thing say you don’t know, do not make up an answer. Also do not wander off the subject to take in other aspects of government policy you are unhappy with.
Ask the MP to write to the appropriate Government Minister on your behalf, asking what is being done, or will be done to address your concerns. Request your MP to ask parliamentary questions to get information from the Government, or to press for change on an issue.
After you have finished the meeting it’s a good idea to jot some notes down about what was said while it’s still fresh in your mind. If your MP advised that specific information would be supplied by a specified date and it has not been received – chase them up!