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How can I access official information?

How can I access official information?

What can I request?

The Freedom of Information Act and Environmental Information Regulations give you rights to access official information. The Environmental Information Regulations give you specific rights to obtain environmental information.

You have a right to request any recorded information held by a public authority, such as a government department, local council or state school. Environmental information requests can also be made to certain non-public bodies carrying out a public function.

  • You can ask for any information you think a public authority may hold. The right only covers recorded information which includes information held on computers, in emails and in printed or handwritten documents as well as images, video and audio recordings.
  • You should identify the information you want as clearly as possible.
  • Your request can be in the form of a question, rather than a request for specific documents, but the authority does not have to answer your question if this would mean creating new information or giving an opinion or judgement that is not already recorded.
  • Some information may not be given to you because it is exempt, for example because it would unfairly reveal personal details about somebody else.

You don’t have to know whether the information you want is covered by the Environmental Information Regulations or the Freedom of Information Act. When you make a request, it is for the public authority to decide which law they need to follow.

What should I do before I make a request?

You can ask for any information you choose, at any time, but you may not always succeed in getting it. Before you make a request, it may help to consider the following questions.

  • Is the information you want already available, for example, on the authority’s website?
    Authorities must make certain information routinely available. You can find out what information is available by checking the authority’s publication scheme or guide to information. Do this by looking at its website or by contacting the authority.
  • Is the information you want your own personal data?
    If your request is for information about yourself, such as your medical records, you should make a subject access request under the Data Protection Act.
  • Is the authority likely to have the information?
    It may save you time if you check with the authority whether it is likely to have the information you want. For example, you may not be sure whether the information you want is held by your district council or the county council. Public authorities must give reasonable advice and assistance to anyone asking for information, so you should feel free to ask for help in making your request.
  • Is the information you want suitable for general publication?
    The aim of the Freedom of Information Act is to make information available to the general public. You can only obtain information that would be given to anybody who asked for it, or would be suitable for the general public to see.
    Some information, such as records about a dead relative, or documents you need for legal purposes, may not always be available under the Act. However, you may have a right to see the information you want under other legislation. The public authority holding the information you want should advise you.

What are the legal requirements for a request?

For your request to be dealt with according to the Freedom of Information Act, you must:

  • contact the relevant authority directly;
  • make the request in writing, for example in a letter or an email. You can make a verbal or written request for environmental information;
  • give your real name; and
  • give an address to which the authority can reply. This can be a postal or email address.

You do not have to:

  • mention the Freedom of Information Act or Environmental Information Regulations, although it may help to do so;
  • know whether the information is covered by the Freedom of Information Act or the Environmental Information Regulations; or
  • say why you want the information.

It is sensible to write the date on any letters or emails you send and keep a copy, so you have a reliable record of your request. If you make a verbal request for environmental information, we recommend that you note who you spoke to, the date, and what information you requested, and you may wish to follow up with a letter or email confirming your request. A written record of a verbal request would be beneficial if you later need to make a complaint.

It can be helpful to check whether the authority recommends you send your request to a specific person or email address. Some authorities also allow you to request information via their website.

Some other websites allow you to contact public authorities and make a request through the site. Check that the site will allow the public authority to respond, otherwise it’s not a valid request.

The ICO cannot request information from another authority on your behalf. You should address your request directly to the authority. There is no need to send us a copy of your request.

How should I word my request?

Your request should set out clearly the information you want.

  • You have a right to request the information, regardless of how it is recorded. You don’t have to specify particular documents.
  • Be as clear as possible. If the authority isn’t sure what you want, it will have to ask you for further explanation.
  • Try to pinpoint what you really want. In some cases your request may be refused if it would be too expensive or time consuming for the authority to deal with. The authority may also charge you for some expenses, such as photocopying. If necessary, start by asking for a list of the information available about the topic.
  • Where possible, ask for specific information rather than using open-ended questions. ‘What or ‘how much’ are more likely to get a useful response than ‘why’.
  • Use straightforward, polite language; avoid basing your request or question on assumptions or opinions, or mixing requests with complaints or comments.
  • Say how you would prefer to receive the information, for example, electronically or as a hard copy, if available?

Good examples

Bad examples

How much did the council spend on refurbishing its offices in the financial year 2010/11?

Please send me information on the refurbishment of the office.

Please send me your policies and internal guidelines on customer services, and a copy of your complaints procedure.

Why does your authority seem to think it is acceptable to treat its customers with contempt?

Please could you tell me what categories of records you hold relating to the Anyshire Regiment from 1939 to 1945.

Please send me any information you have on the Anyshire Regiment.

Please send me the minutes of any meetings at which the university discussed cancelling the course in graphic design, and any reports, papers or internal correspondence dealing with this issue.

Why has the university decided not to offer a course in graphic design after the 2008/09 academic year?

What happens after I make my request?

The authority must reply to you within 20 working days. It may:

  • give you the information you’ve asked for;
  • tell you it doesn’t have the information;
  • tell you that another authority holds the information or transfer the request on your behalf;
  • under the Freedom of Information Act, say that it has the information and offer to provide it if you pay them a fee (but there are rules about what they can charge);
  • under the Environmental Information Regulations, make a reasonable charge for providing information in accordance with their published schedule of charges. Note: If the authority allows you to view a public register or other information in person, at a place of their choice, it cannot charge for this;
  • refuse to give you the information, and explain why; or,
  • under the Freedom of Information Act, say that it needs more time to consider the public interest in disclosing or withholding the information, and tell you when to expect a response. This should not be later than 40 working days after the date of your request. It can only extend the time limit in certain circumstances, and it must explain why it thinks the information may be exempt;
  • under the Environmental Information Regulations, say that it needs more time as the information requested is particularly complex and there is a lot of information to provide. In such cases the time limit can be extended by a further 20 working days as long as the authority respond within the initial time limit stating when it believes it will be able to respond in full.

Will I always get the information I ask for?

Not always. The Freedom of Information Act recognises that there will be valid reasons why some kinds of information may be withheld, such as if its release would prejudice national security or damage commercial interests. For some exemptions the public authority must consider whether the public interest in withholding the information outweighs the public interest in releasing it. If it decides that the information cannot be released it must tell you and explain why. Public authorities are not obliged to deal with vexatious or repeated requests or in some cases if the cost exceeds an appropriate limit. In addition the Act does not provide the right of access to personal information about yourself. This is instead available under the Data Protection Act again, subject to certain exemptions, and is known as a subject access request.

Can I complain if a public authority refuses my request or I am dissatisfied with the way it has been dealt with?

Yes. You should first complain to the authority and ask it to conduct an internal review. For freedom of information complaints we recommend that you do this as soon as possible and within two months of receiving the authority’s final response

For environmental information complaints you should make your complaint within 40 working days.

The Information Commissioner’s Office recommends that public authorities carry out internal reviews within 20 working days. Under Environmental Regulations Information there is a legal requirement that internal reviews must be carried out as soon as possible and within 40 working days. The authority cannot charge for carrying out an internal review.

If you believe that the public authority has not dealt with your complaint properly, or if it does not have a complaints procedure, we may be able to help.