The Freedom of Information Act gives you the right to submit requests to public authorities to access information they hold. But what are ‘public authorities’?
The Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) covers a whole range of public authorities, some of which may surprise you. Of course, you can submit a request for information to your council or to a government department, but there is some scope to be imaginative.
The list includes:
- Any government department
- A local authority such as a council or parish
- The NHS, hospitals and doctors’ surgeries
- Schools, colleges and universities
- Police authorities, including the Metropolitan Police
Who else does it cover?
Schedule 1 of FOIA also lists non-departmental public bodies, committees and advisory bodies. You can submit a FOIA request to the Advisory Committee on Dangerous Pathogens, or to the Bank of England. You could send a request to the Committee on Radioactive Waste Management, the Information Commissioner’s Office and the Civil Aviation Authority, where in August, a FOIA revealed the number of “air rage” incidents that took place on passenger flights in and out of Northern Ireland.
Research councils are also covered, such as the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council and the Arts and Humanities Research Council. In September, a FOIA request revealed that research councils reclaimed more than £2 million from universities for failing to submit adequate financial reports.
And then there are organisations that you may not have realised were covered by FOIA. Some museums and galleries are also covered by FOIA, such as the Tate. In August, the Telegraph ran an amusing FOIA story which revealed that the gallery received 192 complaints about a Damien Hirst exhibition. One complaint read: “Boring, visually unstimulating pretentious rubbish.”
You can also submit one to the British Film Institute, the Imperial War Museums and even the Big Lottery Fund (since they are considered under Schedule 1 as ‘public bodies and offices’). Last year, a FOIA request submitted to the Student Loans Company revealed that 63,000 graduates were overcharged and together paid £36.5 million too much.
Are there government departments and agencies that are not covered by the Act?
Yes. Mi5 and other intelligence agencies such as the Serious Organised Crime Agency are exempt from FOIA due to national security reasons. You also have to watch out if public authorities are exempt from FOIA for specific purposes. For example, take the Bank of England. It does not fall within the scope of the Act if the information requested relates to monetary policy and private banking services. Also, Members of Parliament and Members of the House of Lords are not considered to be public authorities therefore they are not covered by the Act.
Can I submit a FOIA request to a private company?
On the whole, no. But there have been calls for FOIA to be extended to private companies that deliver public services. In light of the probe into G4S and Serco for the overcharging of tagging criminals, Sadiq Khan MP stated that the Act should be extended to “give greater accountability and transparency”. The Committee of Public Accounts have also called for FOIA to extend to Private Finance Initiatives, where private money is used to fund public sector projects. The Treasury cited commercial sensitivities for the Act not to apply, but the Committee said that “it has been all too easy for departments and investors to hide behind commercial confidentiality, rather than provide full disclosure of costs and benefits to inform value for money”.
Yet there are a few exceptions. You can submit FOIA requests to private companies such as Boots and Tesco if it is in regard to their NHS pharmacy services. Furthermore, you can access information about NHS private providers through commissioners. In a recent interview with Virgin Care’s head of innovation, Virgin Care does not have to comply with FOIA requests, but “it does have to supply commissioners with information if they are sent one about services it provides”.
Who should I send my FOIA request to?
The first thing to do is browse the public authority’s website, which should signpost people to the FOIA team contact details. If you cannot find it, ring the public authority’s general enquiries line. But you should also browse the FOI Directory, which has put together lists of FOIA email addresses of city councils, police authorities, non-ministerial departments, academies and many, many more.