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What is an FOI request?

An FOI request is a request to a public authority or organisation that has public responsibilities for any information you think they hold. FOI requests are designed to grant public access to information that would be:

  • provided to anyone who asked, or

  • suitable for the general public to see

Note that FOI requests are different from Data subject access requests (DSARs), which ask organisations for access to the personal information they hold on you. For more information on DSARs, read Making subject access requests.

What organisations can an FOI request be made to?

FOI requests can be made to public authorities, including:

  • Government departments

  • local councils

  • the NHS (including hospitals and GPs)

  • schools and universities

  • the police

  • fire departments

  • publicly owned companies

  • registered social landlords (in Scotland only)

FOI requests can be made of any non-public bodies that carry out a public function. This includes, for example, water and energy suppliers.  

If you are uncertain if you can make an FOI request to an organisation:

Who can make an FOI request?

Anyone can make an FOI request. You do not need to be a UK citizen or UK resident to make such a request. FOI requests can also be made by organisations (eg newspapers or campaign groups).

What to consider before making an FOI request?

Before you make an FOI request you should consider if you need to make the request. Specifically, consider:

  • whether the information is already available - check if the information you are requesting is already publicly available (eg on the public authority’s website, in a ‘disclosure log’ of previous FOI requests or by contacting the organisation in question)

  • whether the organisation is likely to have the information you are requesting - the organisation in question may not have the data you need. If you are uncertain, ask the public authority for help as public authorities are required to provide reasonable assistance and advice to anyone requesting information

  • whether the information you are requesting is suitable for the public - the aim of the Freedom of Information Act is to make information available to the general public. This means that you can only get information under an FOI request that would be given to anyone who asked or which is suitable for the general public

  • whether the information is about your personal data - where you are requesting information about yourself (eg medical records or billing records) you should make a DSAR instead

Bear in mind that certain information (documents needed for legal purposes) or records may not be made available by making an FOI request. However, you may be able to gain access to such information under other laws. Ask a lawyer for more information.

How do I make an FOI request?

FOI requests must be made directly to the organisation in question. They must generally be made in writing (eg by letter or email, using an online form, or through social media). If an FOI request cannot be made in writing because of a disability, the organisation in question should help you make the request in another way (eg over the phone).

Any requests for environmental information can be made in writing, over the phone or in person.

Your FOI request should include: 

  • your full name

  • your up-to-date contact details (eg postal address or email address) so that you can receive a response

  • a detailed description of the information you are requesting (eg all information on a particular subject or a summary of such information)

  • where relevant, what format you want the information in (eg paper or electronic copies)

Your FOI request does not need to explain why you want the information, nor do you need to set out what law you can make a request under. For more information on writing FOI requests, see the ICO website.

What happens next?

Organisations should respond to your request within 20 working days of receiving your FOI request. In Scotland, organisations should respond within 26 working days if you made your FOI request by post. Note that schools are granted more time during school holidays.

In their response, organisations may:

  • provide the information you have requested

  • inform you that they don’t have the information

  • inform you that another organisation holds the information and/or transfer the FOI request to the other organisation on your behalf

  • inform you that they have the information requested and offer to provide it for a fee (generally fees can only be charged where the cost of the FIO request exceeds the ‘cost limit’)

  • refuse to provide the information (or part of the information) and explain why (eg because it is too sensitive to share with the public or because it exceeds the cost limit)

  • make a reasonable charge for a request for environmental information

  • ask for more time and tell you when to expect a response (generally organisations can only get an additional 20 days)

What is the cost limit?

The cost limit is the cap on the cost associated with complying with an FOI request. In other words, organisations should not spend more than the cost limit in answering an FOI request. Currently, the cost limit is: 

  • £600 for government departments, Parliament, the Welsh Assembly, the armed forces and Scottish organisations

  • £400  for all other public authorities

If the cost limit is exceeded, a request can be refused or a fee can be paid.

For more information, read the ICO’s guidance.

What if an organisation's response is unsatisfactory?

If an organisation doesn’t provide the information requested or you are dissatisfied with their response, contact the organisation directly and ask them to review their response. For FOI requests, this should generally be done within 2 months of receiving the organisation’s final response. For environmental information requests, this should be done within 40 working days.

If you are unhappy with an organisation’s response, you can complain to the ICO (for organisations in England or Wales, or organisations covering the entire UK) or appeal to the Scottish Information Commission (for Scottish authorities).

Read the Government’s guidance and the ICO’s guidance for more information on FOI requests.

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