Using your Right to Know – How to make Freedom of Information Requests

Paul Gibbons

Everyone has a right to know – and that includes you. all public bodies, from government departments to local councils, hospitals, schools and the prison service have to follow a law called the freedom of information act. in the pages of Converse you will have read articles which mention the freedom of information act and it is a very valuable tool for journalists and researchers.

But Freedom of Information (or FOI) isn’t just for journalists and campaign groups. It’s meant to help anybody to get information that is helpful to them, to help them to understand decisions that are made. In particular, if you’re in prison, your life is under the control of public bodies more than most. You should be able to find out about the decisions they make that affect you. Often you will find it more difficult than others to get access to information that affects you. So here are some tips on how you can use your right to know – whatever side of the cell door you may be on.

1. It’s really easy

You don’t need any specialist knowledge to make an FOI request. All you need is a question that you want answering. You might want to know how many complaints are made about a prison. Or want access to a policy or procedure used in prisons. It doesn’t matter, all you need to do is ask.

2. Put your request in writing

Most FOI requests are made via email, but they don’t have to be. Old-fashioned pen and paper is fine. You don’t need to use any technical jargon, just set out what you want.

3. Send it to a public body

Only public bodies such as the Ministry of Justice, HMPPS, IMB’s, hospitals, police forces and councils are covered. Private companies don’t have to answer FOI requests, but if they act on behalf of public bodies, for example running prisons for them, you can still ask the public body that controls the contract (which would be the Ministry of Justice for private prison contractors). Some addresses for public bodies involved in prison and probation provision are provided below.

The public body must respond to your request within 20 working days (four weeks).

4.It’s free (usually)!

Public bodies can charge for things like photocopying and postage – in theory, but they rarely do. That said, someone is paying for it – the public. So make FOI requests responsibly – don’t request information for the sake of it, just if there is genuinely something you want to know.

Public bodies can refuse your request if it will take too long to find the information you want. You are most likely to get what you want if you focus your request. So ask for a specific document or for a couple of facts. If necessary, you can always make another request if you want to know more.

5. Explain about your circumstances

It shouldn’t matter who is asking for information or why. Public bodies are supposed to treat everyone the same when they receive requests. However, one of the reasons that they might turn down your request is if the information is already published (Prison Service Orders or Prison Service Instructions and Policy Frameworks would be examples of this). But if there is a reason why you can’t access information that has been published – for example, because you have no access to the internet – they have to take that into account. So being up-front about your circumstances could help you get what you want.

6. Don’t get personal

You are very unlikely to get information about other people such as other prisoners or prison officers. Data protection laws protect their information. However, data protection laws do allow you to make a ‘subject access request’ to any organisation to access information about yourself. Just like making FOI requests, there is no special technique needed to do this – just write to the organisation concerned. You will usually have to provide proof of your identity, but otherwise all you have to do is ask.

7. Be polite

The people answering your request are just doing their job (it used to be my job). Many try their hardest to help, and being polite will increase the chances that they will go the extra mile to help you.

8. Public bodies are supposed to help you

Here’s a thing. Public bodies have a duty to help you. If you’re not sure what information they might have, you could write and ask them and (in theory at least) they have to give you advice. If you make a request and the person who receives it can’t understand it, then they are supposed to help you to make your request clearer. If they think it will take too long to answer, they should tell you what changes you need to make so that they can do it. If you get an unhelpful response, consider making a complaint.

9. You won’t always get what you want

There are reasons why you might not get what you ask for. If that’s the case, the public body concerned has to explain why they can’t provide the information. Read their response, and if you’re not convinced it is really easy to get a review of the decision. Just send them a letter

asking for the decision to be reviewed. If there are reasons why you think the information should be released to you, tell them.

10. There is a higher power

Sometimes you might find that a public body is being unhelpful. Or maybe you’ve asked for a review and you are still dissatisfied with the answer. When that happens you can ask the Information Commissioner to intervene. The Information Commissioner has the power to force public bodies to release information if they disagree with their reasons for refusing requests. Again, you don’t need any special knowledge to launch an appeal to the Commissioner – just write to them, enclosing the correspondence that you have had with the public body. They might not think that you have a valid complaint, but if they do, you could end up getting the information you want. If you go down this route, just bear in mind that it can take time to get a decision – you will need to be patient. Sometimes though a bit of persistence will pay off in the end.

So if you want to know what rules prison officers have to follow, how complaints are dealt with in your prison, or why a decision was made that has affected you – there is a way to find out. And it’s not just you that has this right – your family and friends are also able to make FOI requests. Give it a go – it’s your right!

where to send moJ Foi requests

Ministry of Justice/HM Prison and Probation Service:

Disclosure team

Postal Point 10.38, Floor 10
102 Petty France
London
SW1H 9AJ
United Kingdom

To make a complaint to the Information Commissioner:

Information Commissioner’s Office

Wycliffe House
Water Lane
Wilmslow
SK9 5AF

Paul Gibbons, MSc, LLM, BCS is a consultant and trainer in information rights and information management. He was Parliamentary Records Manager in the Houses of Parliament and the Freedom of Information and Records Manager for the Greater London Authority, tasked with preparing the Mayor of London’s headquarters for FOI coming into force. His last job before going freelance was in the higher education sector, as Information Compliance Manager for SOAS, University of London.