How to use FOI to get the information you want

Jon Robins, of the Observer, describes how the Freedom of Information Act can be used to find out everything from MRSA levels in your local hospital to planned air traffic over your home.

Demand, a coalition of campaigners calling for a limit on flights into Nottingham East Midlands Airport, used the Freedom of Information Act to gain access to the policies of otherwise reluctant ministers and aviation bosses. They also made use of the Environmental Information Regulations, which came into force at the same time as FOI legislation and implement an EU directive. The Regulations provide a greater right to information about pollution, conservation, food contamination and other issues.

In another case the Patients Association used Freedom of Information to investigate the practices of 30 NHS hospitals with the worst records concerning MRSA, the hospital super-bug. Responses by the hospitals were very slow with only a quarter of them managing to reply within the statutory 20 working days. However, now over half have replied. The results uncovered the fact that babies have picked up MRSA in neonatal units which are meant to be the cleanest wards in a hospital.

Maurice Frankel, director of the Campaign for Freedom of Information, emphasised that people should not view a refusal by public authorities to co-operate as a failure of the Act: 'Personally I don't take much notice of requests that are being refused at this stage.' Instead, the critical test of the legislation is not what authorities reveal 20 days after a request, but what they are forced to do as a result of a ruling by the Information Commissioner who is responsible for enforcing the Act.

Free to find out all you want? (The Observer, 24 July 2005)