The Freedom of Information Act, originally, was driven by the principle that the public had a right to know what was going on at the organisations they funded.
There are several safety mechanisms – in theory policed by the Information Commissioner – which are designed to ensure that public bodies don’t pick and choose who they respond to.
The first is that requests should be treated in an applicant blind manner – in other words, that it shouldn’t matter who you are, you should get the same access to information. Many journalists report surprise that press officers get told about their requests, and question whether the same would happen if they were just a member of the public, but few are able to prove that being a reporter makes a material difference to the information they receive.
The second is that you don’t have to explain your motivation for making an FOI request. Indeed, the ICO’s guidance is quite clear:
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.
With that in mind, it’s disappointing to find Bury Primary Care Trust, pushing people with FOI requests to use this form:
My main concern is the box at the bottom, the one I’ve highlighted in red. To a reporter using FOI, it’s not a problem – we know we don’t have to explain why we want the information.
But to the ordinary man in the street, perhaps using FOI for the first time to get information which he believes he is entitled to, it’s entirely possible he’ll feel as though he has to fill this part of the form in. That, to me, is a misleading action on the part of the PCT and shouldn’t be allowed to go un-noticed.
What purpose can adding your reasons in serve? I suppose officers may argue it will help them sort out the request sooner – but surely the information someone receives in response to a question should be the same, regardless of what reasons are given for making the request.
There are other irritants in the form. The assumption the person must give their address (including postcode) is not a requirement of FOI – an email address will suffice, as ICO guidance states. Indeed, by not even asking for an email address or phone number, Bury PCT is actually making it harder to resolve any misunderstandings about the information being sought.
Bury PCT is one of the few – perhaps the only? – primary care trust to be chaired by a journalist – former Manchester Evening News editor Paul Horrocks. One has to hope that, having a chair who has dedicated his career to providing information to the public which many would rather have kept locked away, will result in Bury PCT changing its ways.
I believe public authorities have a duty to explain to people how they can use FOI to get information – and many do just that. Bury PCT should be making it clear no-one is obliged to answer their ‘reasons’ question, and should be working harder to ensure that people are leaving contact details which make them quickly accessible to deal with queries – not putting up obstacles powered by the postal service.
On the upside, however, if you search for ‘Bury PCT foi’ whatdotheyknow comes up first – I’m increasingly coming to the view that Whatdotheyknow should be the way everyone accesses FOI – a one-stop portal if you like. See, I’ve even come up with the government jargon to support the argument.