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Political editor puts FOI Act to the test

Bristol Evening Post political editor Ian Onions put the new Freedom of Information Act to the test by submitting 10 questions to the city council – four from himself, one each from three well-known Bristol campaigners and one each from three people picked at random in the street.


In the words of poet Alexander Pope, a little knowledge is a dangerous thing. And maybe it was that fear which led to information being imparted in Britain – despite being a democracy – on a largely need-to-know basis for centuries. That philosophy changed at the start of this year with the new Freedom of Information Act, which has revolutionised the way in which public institutions should treat facts and figures.

The belief is that we now have a right to information unless there is some overwhelming reason it should not be given.

The only trouble is, some of these public bodies are virtually buried under the weight of their own information, so imparting it – let alone finding it in the first place – is not necessarily that easy.

And sometimes you can be so deluged with information about a given topic, it can become overwhelming.

Pope knew this. Just read what he says after his famous quotation: “A little learning is a dangerous thing; drink deep, or taste not the Pierian spring: there shallow draughts intoxicate the brain, and drinking largely sobers us again.”

We decided to put the new legislation to the test by submitting 10 questions covering a wide range of topics – some general, some very specific – to see what sort of response we would get.

The council responded to all of them easily within the 20-day deadline and there’s only one case in which the council used an exemption clause to refuse to give us what we wanted. None of the answers cost us a penny.

And the point was made to us that most of them would have been answered whether there was Freedom of Information legislation or not.

What emerged from the exercise was the need to be clear about the information you’re after because the answer you get might not necessarily answer your question.

We deliberately published the answers in full to prove the point – that civil servants talk in a language of their own which is not easy to understand. And when you do it can be, quite frankly, very dull. We sent our questions by e-mail to the relevant chief officer and a copy to the head of corporate communications, Simon Caplan.

The answers came via Mr Caplan’s office, although two were signed by chief officers themselves.

Remember, anyone can use the new act to gain access to information. Questions have to be submitted in writing – an e-mail will do – to the relevant chief officer, who decides whether the information should be given.

If so, then the request would be passed to a member of staff to deal with.

It doesn’t cost anything to ask a question but sometimes fees can be charged if the amount of work involved takes up a lot of staff time. A public body would have to tell you what fees are involved before you get landed with a bill.

And these charges can be challenged by taking your case to the Information Commissioner.

For more information about the new Act, go to www.informationcommissioner.gov.uk.