Quoted in The Observer

Free to find out all you want?
The Observer, Sunday July 24, 2005
Jon Robins on how the Freedom of Information Act can be used to find out everything from MRSA levels in your hospital to planned air traffic over your home

Heather Brooke, a former crime reporter in the US and now a freedom of information expert in the UK, has made in the region of 50 requests since 1 January. ‘I am trying to set precedents for public authorities and change the culture of secrecy in the UK,’ she says. She has successfully requested waste management contracts in the London borough where she lives and crime statistics for Victoria Park in East London where Margaret Muller, the American artist, was tragically stabbed to death when out jogging. ‘I used to be on the neighbourhood committee and a policeman would come to our group,’ she says. ‘When I asked him about it he gave me no information at all and then I asked a question under the Freedom of Information Act and they gave me the answer straightaway.’

What advice does she have for would-be FOI sleuths? ‘You need to know exactly what it is that you want,’ reckons Brooke. ‘Surprisingly, no-one has completely blown me off yet. I think people will be pleasantly surprised to discover that their requests are taken seriously.’ Campaigners lambasted ministers for diluting its legislation through a fairly comprehensive list of exemptions. For example, public authorities can withhold information if that disclosure would prejudice defence, international relations, law enforcement, commercial interests, the economy, collective cabinet responsibility or inhibit frank discussions by officials.

Read the full article on the Observer’s website.

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