Just how responsive is your council to the freedom of information (FOI) act of 2000?
An original investigation by Birmingham Eastside has found that among other things the number of FOI requests received by councils across the UK has increased by 68% since 2011.
The FOI Act, which came into force in 2005 allows any member of the public to write to a public authority and to request that they provide the information. The law itself specifies that they must respond within 20 working days – in most circumstances – where the authority can either disclose it or deny it based on a number of act’s exemptions.
But how can a public authority deny a request?
Well if they believe the request would take too much time – known as cost of compliance – they can refuse you the request unless you offer to pay a fee to cover the time taken to get your information. They’re also able to deny a request if it’s seen as vexatious, it repeats a previous request from the same person or if it breaks trade secrets or the official secrets act to name four examples.
The Freedom of Information act was in the news recently when Chris Grayling MP, conservative for Epsom and Ewell and who is currently the Secretary of State for Transport declared that journalists were misusing and abusing the power of the FOI act. In the video, which is originally from Russia Today, Maurice Frankel from the Campaign for Freedom of Information talks about how journalists use FoI Act to find out what govt is doing for the public good
For the first time since the FOI act came into force in the United Kingdom, we can exclusively reveal how the UK’s councils are performing.
The dataset, which you can view here, will continue to be updated as more councils respond to our request.
Whilst there’s been a 68% increase in requests, our investigation, which reports on the calendar year figures between 2011 and 2016, shows there has been a 128% increase in the number of requests being outrightly denied by councils and a 66% increase in the number of requests taking longer than the required 20 working days for the request to receive an official response.
In the six-year period, Birmingham City Council received a total of 10,821 FOI requests. Whilst the council does not hold figures for the number of delayed requests, it was revealed that 14% or 1,526 requests were responded to over the 20-day working limit.
The data also revealed that Glasgow city council received the most requests in the United Kingdom seeing a total of 15,757 in the time period.
You can search for your local council below. Simply type in the name of your local authority, like Birmingham City Council and you’ll see the total number of FOI requests they received along with the number within the total amount that took longer than the 20 working days that the act stipulates you must receive a response by.
You may have noticed that in our investigation table above, several councils don’t have their FOI statistics associated with them. But why is this?
Whilst the article is an evolving one (we will add more data as we get it) there were a number of issues that we faced when gathering this data for local authorities. These ranged from cost issues, incorrect time periods and even several cases where we received no response from the local authority.
We’ve explored them below:
Cost of compliance: For several councils, the cost of releasing the information exceeded the limit that is outlined by the act, which is £450. This means that to release the information Birmingham Eastside would have to pay a fee.
No response: Whilst this was only the case for 12 councils, some simply did not respond to the FOI act within the 20 working days that they legally have to under the act. Despite follow-up emails from Birmingham Eastside, these councils did not respond.
Financial not calendar year data: The most common issue was that whilst the data was provided by a local council, it was done in a financial year (April to March) and not calendar year (January to December) as we had asked when we requested the information. We, therefore, could not include that data as it would not be representative of the other councils as there is a time difference between both types of request.
Data available online, but not in a clear and understandable manner: Another common outcome was that the council already published the data on their own website and so they did not have to provide the information as it was already readily available online. This had two issues: Firstly, some of the online data was not in the calendar year format and secondly, some was not in a useable format, for instance it was just listed with none of the detail that we required.
As data editor I’ve worked a lot with the FOI act, so since June 2015, when I joined Birmingham Eastside, how have I been abusing the act?
We found out that the number of male domestic abuse victims in the UK had increase by 80% in just five years, Birmingham City Councils litter target was missed in 58% of the city’s wards, West Midlands Police had seen a rise in drivers caught using their phone, Brummie students caught with knives at schools had increased by 193% in three years and that the overall reported use of weapons in Birmingham schools rise by 150% in three years