At a glance
To be valid under the Act, the request must:
- be in writing. This could be a letter or email. Requests can also be made via the web, or even on social networking sites such as Facebook or Twitter if your public authority uses these;
- include the requester’s real name. The Act treats all requesters alike, so you should not normally seek to verify the requester’s identity. However, you may decide to check their identity if it is clear they are using a pseudonym or if there are legitimate grounds for refusing their request and you suspect they are trying to avoid this happening, for example because their request is vexatious or repeated. Remember that a request can be made in the name of an organisation, or by one person on behalf of another, such as a solicitor on behalf of a client;
- include an address for correspondence. This need not be the person’s residential or work address – it can be any address at which you can write to them, including a postal address or email address;
- describe the information requested. Any genuine attempt to describe the information will be enough to trigger the Act, even if the description is unclear, or you think it is too broad or unreasonable in some way. The Act covers information not documents, so a requester does not have to ask for a specific document (although they may do so). They can, for example, ask about a specific topic and expect you to gather the relevant information to answer their enquiry. Or they might describe other features of the information (eg author, date or type of document).
This is not a hard test to satisfy. Almost anything in writing which asks for information will count as a request under the Act. People may also send you requests through websites like WhatDoTheyKnow, which will automatically publish your response online. These are still valid requests. The Act contains other provisions to deal with requests which are too broad, unclear or unreasonable.
Even if a request is not valid under the Freedom of Information Act, this does not necessarily mean you can ignore it. Requests for ‘environmental information’, for example, can be made verbally. You also have an obligation to provide advice and assistance to requesters. Where somebody seems to be requesting information but has failed to make a valid freedom of information request, you should draw their attention to their rights under the Act and tell them how to make a valid request.
For further information, read our more detailed guidance:
When should we deal with a request as a freedom of information request?
You can deal with many requests by providing the requested information in the normal course of business. If the information is included in the publication scheme, you should give this out automatically, or provide a link to where the information can be accessed (see What information do we need to publish?).
If you need to deal with a request more formally, it is important to identify the relevant legislation:
- If the person is asking for their own personal data, you should deal with it as a data protection subject access request.
- If the person is asking for ‘environmental information’, the request is covered by the Environmental Information Regulations 2004.
Any other non-routine request for information you hold should be dealt with under the Freedom of Information Act.
Can a question be a valid request?
Yes, a question can be a valid request for information. It is important to be aware of this so that you can identify requests and send them promptly to the correct person.
“Please send me all the information you have about the application for a 24-hour licence at the Midnite Bar.”
“Re. Midnite Bar licence application. Please explain, why have you decided to approve this application?”
Both are valid requests for information about the reasons for the decision.
Under the Act, if you have information in your records that answers the question you should provide it in response to the request. You are not required to answer a question if you do not already have the relevant information in recorded form.
In practice this can be a difficult area for public authorities. Many of those who ask questions just want a simple answer, not all the recorded information you hold. It can be frustrating for applicants to receive a formal response under the Act stating that you hold no recorded information, when this doesn’t answer their simple question. However, requesters do have a right to all the relevant recorded information you hold, and some may be equally frustrated if you take a less formal approach and fail to provide recorded information.
The best way round this is usually to speak to the applicant, explain to them how the Act works, and find out what they want. You should also remember that even though the Act requires you to provide recorded information, this doesn’t prevent you providing answers or explanations as well, as a matter of normal customer service.
The Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) recognises that some public authorities may initially respond to questions informally, but we will expect you to consider your obligations under the Act as soon as it becomes clear that the applicant is dissatisfied with this approach. Ultimately, if there is a complaint to the ICO, the Commissioner will make their decision based on whether recorded information is held and has been provided.
Should Parliamentary Questions be treated as FOI requests?
Parliamentary Questions (PQs) are part of parliamentary proceedings and must not be treated as requests for information under FOIA (or under the EIR); to do so would infringe parliamentary privilege.
Councils may permit members of the public to raise questions, either orally or in writing, at council meetings. These questions also should not be treated as requests for information under FOIA or under the EIR.