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OVER the last few months The Comet has used the Freedom of Information Act (FoI) to request information from public bodies we believe you should be aware of. Some of the information we have dug up has been staggering, such as the number of drivers with pr

OVER the last few months The Comet has used the Freedom of Information Act (FoI) to request information from public bodies we believe you should be aware of.

Some of the information we have dug up has been staggering, such as the number of drivers with previous convictions who have been granted licences to drive taxis by councils in Comet country.

Other requests have exposed how many violent crimes have taken place at our railway stations within a 12-month period, and that hundreds of children in Comet country have been given what amounts to little more than slapped wrists after admitting serious crimes such as rape and conspiracy to murder.

We believe that requesting information under the Act, which came fully into force on January 1 2005, has helped shine a spotlight on the public bodies in our area and has made them more accountable.

It is also worth reminding people that the FoI is not solely for the purposes of journalists. You, our readers, can also use it to request information.

However, come March 19 this could all change.

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The Government is considering changing the law to give public bodies a wider scope from which to turn down requests on cost grounds alone.

Meant to prevent "serial" requesters such as journalists from making too many requests, it is believed the changes will save the Government around £10m a year and could lead to around 17,000 extra requests being turned down each year.

This will be at the cost of transparency and reporters across the country are opposing the changes. Staff at The Comet have joined 1,000 other people in signing a petition on the 10 Downing Street website stating just that.

As our editor Darren Isted explains, it is important that the Government thinks twice about the changes: "The Freedom of Information Act was a major step in the right direction giving members of the public the right to delve into previously hidden corners of government.

"So many important revelations have come to light through the use of this Act, and for the sake of £10 million it is a travesty that the Government is now trying to effectively neuter it.

"Saving money may be one issue, but this is having a major impact on information which we all have a right to know."

Although The Comet has several more requests in the pipeline, we would also like to remind our readers that you too can request information from public bodies such as your council, health authority, schools and the police.

Do so before it is too late.

If you need help, tips for asking for information under the FoI are outlined below, and more details can be found at www.foi.gov.uk

But if you are still unsure, and would like us to ask for information on your behalf, then email us at damion. roberts@thecomet.net listing what you would like to know and from which public body, and we will try to get the information for you.

Tips on using the FoI:

1. The information you are after could be available already and might not need to be requested under the FoI. Try phoning for the information first, it could be quicker.

2. If this doesn't work, find out who the FoI officer is and write or email them to make a request under the FoI Act 2000. You should include your name and address.

3. Explain in as much detail as you can what information you want. This will make it easier for officers, who are only obliged to spend a maximum of 18 hours looking into your request, to find the information.

4. Keep it simple, ie if you want information from between certain dates, specify these dates.

5. The officer has 20 days in which to respond to your request. If the officer is going to take longer, they must inform you at the earliest opportunity.

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