Stonewall FOIA requests – next steps

The response to my call for action, asking people to submit FOIA requests to public bodies asking them about their dealings with Stonewall, has been amazing – huge thanks to everyone who has taken part so far. Responses are starting to come in, so it’s time to provide some guidance about what to do next.

If the authority has provided all the information you’ve asked for, all you need to do is update the status of your request to “I’ve received all of the information.” That’s it – the information is now there for all to see, and you’ve made a significant contribution to bringing Stonewall’s influence over our public authorities out into the daylight. Thank you.

If the public authority has refused to provide the information, or provided partial or unsatisfactory answers, the next step is simple. You write back to them as soon as possible (but at any rate within 2 months) asking for an internal review.

You can do this through the Whatdotheyknow.com, by clicking on the “Actions” button at the bottom of the page showing your request, and then choosing “Request an internal review.” (Please do do it this way, rather than just emailing the body – so that the answer to the request for internal review is also displayed on Whatdotheyknow.com.)

That brings up a standard letter that goes like this:

Dear [public authority]

Please pass this on to the person who conducts Freedom of Information reviews.

I am writing to request an internal review of [public authority]’s handling of my FOI request ‘Information about your dealings with Stonewall #DontSubmitToSTonewall.’

[GIVE DETAILS ABOUT YOUR COMPLAINT HERE]

A full history of my FOI request and all correspondence is available on the Internet at this address: https://www.whatdotheyknow.com/request/xxxxxx

Yours faithfully


[Your name]

So all you have to do is write something brief about why you are dissatisfied with the information provided in place of “[GIVE DETAILS ABOUT YOUR COMPLAINT HERE],” preview and check your message, and then send it. If the response to your request gives a reference number for future communications, paste that in – and if they give an email address for correspondence, add that in after “the person who conducts Freedom of Information reviews.”

It doesn’t actually matter very much what you write about why you are dissatisifed with the response. If they say they don’t have the information, and you don’t believe them, you could say that. If they say it would be too expensive to give it to you, and you don’t think that can be right, you can explain why. If they say the information is legally exempt from disclosure, and you think they are wrong, you could explain why you think that.

But really, the main thing is to get someone more senior to have another look at the decision – and to do the thing that you have to do to found a complaint to the Information Commissioner. If you write a persuasive argument and actually change their minds, so much the better – but it’s ok, too, just to write “I don’t accept that the information is exempt/too expensive to provide/ not held.”

I’ll do a worked example. Nottingham University has provided an unsatisfactory response to Ben Green’s request. So Ben could click on the “Actions” button, choose “Request an internal review,” and then complete the standard letter so that it looks like this:

Dear Nottingham University

Your reference 429001

Please pass this on to the person who conducts Freedom of Information reviews, info-requests@nottingham.ac.uk.

I am writing to request an internal review of your handling of my FOI request ‘Information about your dealings with Stonewall #DontSubmitToSTonewall.’

Your answer to my request (3) claims that because the only communications received from Stonewall are generic communications sent to a large distribution list, it would be unduly costly to check all the inboxes in the University that might have received such communications. I do not accept that this is a real difficulty. I do not require to see multiple copies of the same generic communication as it has landed in many different inboxes: it will be perfectly adequate to examine a single inbox that is on the relevant distribution list, and provide copies of all the generic emails that have been received in that inbox.

I do not think your approach to this question is consistent with your duty under section 16 of the Freedom of Information Act to provide advice and assistance to me as a person who has requested information from you, and I would ask you to have careful regard to that duty in dealing with this application for review. In particularly, if you consider that taken literally my request would put you to excessive cost, but you can see a different way of formulating my request that would make it possible for you to respond in substance, then you should suggest that reformulation and offer to respond accordingly.

A full history of my FOI request and all correspondence is available on the Internet at this address: https://www.whatdotheyknow.com/request/xxxxxx

Yours faithfully


Ben Green

If you have questions about how you should draft your request for an internal review, please post them here as comments, with a link to your request. I will do my best to answer them, or at least to answer enough of them to provide some general guidance. If in doubt, just write a very simple letter saying you are dissatisfied with the response, and want to request an internal review.

19 thoughts on “Stonewall FOIA requests – next steps”

  1. Another public authority has said this: “Part 3 of your request is wide in potential scope and does not provide a sufficiently clear description that will allow me to identify and locate the exact information you are seeking – I will be unable to process part 3 of your request without further clarification.”

    Here’s a draft response to that (drafted on the assumption that you have used the standard #DontSubmitToStonewall wording and numbering):

    ‘Part 3 of my request asks for “Any other communication you have received from Stonewall in 2019 or 2020 unless privileged or otherwise exempt from disclosure…”

    That is a completely clear description of what I am seeking. I wish to see every written communication that you have received from Stonewall in the two years specified. If you have been deluged with communications from Stonewall in that period, it is possible that that is a large class of information, but the fact that it is large does not affect its clarity.

    It is possible that the quantity of information in scope would provide grounds for exemption under section 12 of the Act on the basis that the cost of compliance would exceed the appropriate limit. If so, I direct your attention to your section 16 duty to provide me with advice and assistance. The specific assistance I would like you to provide me with to help me to refine my request and make it possible for you to comply without incurring excessive costs is a list of the custodians (by job title; I do not need to know names) you believe to have been the recipients of such communications.

    That, of course, does not exhaust your duty to provide me with advice and assistance: you should also turn your minds to any other ways in which you can help me to refine my request so that it captures a representative picture of your dealings with Stonewall without exceeding the appropriate limit.’

    1. Am in process of updating my FOI responses.

      Re DEFRA, as well as s43(2) ref commercial interest excuse, they are also citing s41(1) :

      “The exemption under section 41(1) of the FOIA is engaged as the information you
      requested was obtained from another person who attached explicit conditions of
      confidentiality, and because the information is not otherwise accessible. Under these
      circumstances, we consider that disclosure would constitute an actionable breach of
      confidence. There is a strong public interest in maintaining confidentiality to maintain the
      free flow of information to public authorities in the future. Without a degree of certainty that
      this confidentiality will be respected, the result may be to diminish government’s ability to
      achieve successful outcomes in similar matters in the future. Therefore, we have concluded that in all the circumstances of the case, the information should be withheld.”

      I could do with some advice re how to respond, please. I’m learning something new every time I deal with this FOI, and s41(1) to this non-legal person seems like a whopper of an opt out for the public sector for any issue, not just this… C

      1. Section 41 looks like a huge get-out clause, doesn’t it? On the face of things, all Stonewall has to do is say that all their communications to public authorities are confidential, and then the public authorities can point to that and say “This material isn’t disclosable, because disclosing it would be actionable by Stonewall as a breach of confidence.”

        Fortunately, it’s not as simple as that. That’s because although FOIA doesn’t say anything about balancing confidentiality with the public interest in disclosure in relation to this particular exemption, a public interest defence is available as a defence to a breach of confidence claim. That means that section 41 isn’t engaged just because Stonewall says the material is confidential: it’s still necessary to balance the public interest in disclosure against the value of preserving confidentiality.

        That said, you don’t really have to get into complicated arguments about whether an action for breach of confidence would succeed at this stage. The point of an internal review is really just to push the request up to someone more senior in the organisation. I would say something like this:

        I don’t accept that section 41 is engaged. You say, “Without a degree of certainty that
        this confidentiality will be respected, the result may be to diminish government’s ability to
        achieve successful outcomes in similar matters in the future.” But I don’t understand what kind of “outcomes” you are talking about here, nor how you think “success” is measured. If public authorities are to submit themselves to (and pay for) intensive lobbying by pressure groups, there is a clear public interest in knowing exactly what has passed between them. In that context, I would draw your attention to the recently-published report by Akua Reindorf on incidents at Essex University, and in particular her Recommendation 28.

        Please reconsider.

    2. I asked Stockport council who are/were listed on the Stonewall website as children’s champion. I had to request a review. I was sent files I do not know how to open and was informed that the council had not in fact signed up as yet. In response to my further question I was told that the question of joining the scheme was not put before the relevant council sub-committee. I am now going to write a snail-mail letter to a relevant councillor to establish the status of membership and explain why I am concerned to know more about it.

  2. Advice please – I’ve had a response from Northumbria Police & Crime Commissioner:
    “No information held. The OPCC does not hold such information. Your request may best be directed to Northumbria Police as they collate statistical data and will be able to advise you if they hold this information or not.”

    Q: Does this mean they don’t have interaction with Stonewall, or that they don’t record it when they do?

    Also just FYI, although they suggested contacting Northumbria Police instead, but there was a para:
    “we must advise that Northumbria Police have also received an exact same request from a different applicant also submitted via the whatdotheyknow website. Whilst in the spirit of the Act we endeavour to respond to requests fairly, we also expect those making such requests to
    submit them in accordance with the legislation and not abuse these rights by using pseudonyms or working in concert with others. In light of this should you submit the same request to Northumbria Police they will aggregate both submissions due to cost/time constraints of the Act. It may also be that they seek ID from all parties in the future to verify the identity of those applicants.”

    Chilling much?

    1. A bit!

      But since Northumbria Police have had a #DontSubmitToStonewall request already, I think the thing to do here is wait and see what comes back in response to that.

  3. Cardiff Metropolitan University has replied asking for clarification:

    “You have asked:
    Any other communication you have received from Stonewall in 2019 or 2020
    unless privileged or otherwise exempt from disclosure (but if you claim
    privilege or exemption in relation to any material, please say in broad
    terms what the material is and the basis on which you claim to be entitled
    to withhold it).

    The University would be grateful if you could be more specific with
    regards to ‘any other communication you have received from Stonewall in
    2019/20…’ The University receives many different communications from
    Stonewall including a newsletter, community emails, empowerment emails,
    and account information emails. Are you requesting information about
    Stonewall as an organisation or about Stonewall employees for example?

    Please could you kindly provide further clarification, so that the
    University can help provide you with the information you require – thank
    you.”

  4. The Cabinet Office is struggling with this FOI request. They have extended their reply time period by a month to 6 April.

    “It is occasional y [sic] necessary to extend the 20 working day time limit for issuing a response. Information you have requested is exempt under section 43 of the Act, which relates to information where disclosure would be likely to prejudice the commercial interests of any person. Section 43 is subject to a public interest test and the Cabinet Office has not yet reached a decision on whether the balance of the public interest favours disclosure of this information.

    By virtue of section 10(3), when public authorities have to consider the balance of the
    public interest in relation to a request, they do not have to comply with the request until
    such time as is reasonable in the circumstances.”

      1. And now from Intellectual Property Office too – same wording, ‘Section 43(2) of the Freedom of Information Act, which relates to prejudice to commercial interests’, etc. C

        1. Similar response from the Serious Fraud Office

          “We are currently considering these in relation to section 43 of the Act which relates to information commercial interests.”

  5. The Welsh Ambulance Service NHS Trust response to requests 1, 2 & 3 is a section 12 exception. I will use your draft response.

    On request 5, the Trust states they consider this information to be exempt from disclosure under the Freedom of Information Act 2000 (Section 43) Commercial Interests.

    This is strange as the cost range widely known.

    The Trust says “There is a risk of disclosure prejudicing the commercial interests of the Trust by affecting its bargaining position with agencies.”

    “Decision: The Trust considers that the public interest in withholding the information is greater than the interests in disclosing it and thereby giving unfair commercial advantage to competitors of the supplier to which this information concerns. The Trust believes that disclosure of information in a manner which fails to protect the interests and relationships arising in a commercial context could have the effect of discouraging companies from dealing with the Trust because of fears that the disclosure of information could damage them commercially. In turn this could then jeopardise the Trust’s ability to compete fairly and pursue its function to bring forward development in the area and obtain value for money. Therefore, it has been decided that it would not be in the public’s interest to disclose this information.”

    I would be grateful for your advice on asking for an internal review on the Section 43 response.

    1. I think I’d just do a quick request for internal review pointing out that as you say the cost range is widely known, and you don’t think s.43 applies. You don’t need to do an elaborate legal argument at this stage – just push the button marked “I’m not satisfied with this decision, plesase review it.”

      (I should probably point out that this reply – and others like it – is not legal advice.)

    2. I think I’d just do a quick request for internal review pointing out that as you say the cost range is widely known, and you don’t think s.43 applies. You don’t need to do an elaborate legal argument at this stage – just push the button marked “I’m not satisfied with this decision, plesase review it.”

      (I should probably point out that this reply – and others like it – is not intended as legal advice.)

  6. Response from Sussex Police invokes s.41 and s.43. The reason is to do with commercial rivals of Stonewall’s seeing how they operate and nicking their ideas (I paraphrase). It is unclear whether this is a response to my request for an internal review, because, after taking ages to respond to the previous reminders, this time I got an answer within days. It feels like they are trying to make it seem as though their answer was in the pipeline and therefore they can ignore the request for an internal review. So I don’t know what to do next.

    1. I’d suggest submitting a request for internal review of the latest letter. It only adds a few days’ more delay, and could save a sterile debate about whether you had or had waited for the outcome of an internal review if you decide you want to complain to the ICO. You could perhaps add “Please let me know by return if your message of 23 May was a response to my earlier request for internal review,” just to be sure that they don’t think they’ve already done that.

      (In light of the Reindorf Report, the idea of anyone else wanting to copy Stonewall’s homework strikes me as unduly flattering.)

  7. Fascinating- who wants to bet Stonewall is providing this guidance about how to dodge scrutiny? Awesome work by everyone.

  8. Hi – after an internal review Dept for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy is still refusing to provide information on commercial grounds – that it would prevent organisations from taking part in the Diversity Champions Scheme, if they thought their correspondence would be made public. So presumably my next step is appeal to the Information Commissioner?

    https://www.whatdotheyknow.com/request/information_about_your_dealings_252#incoming-1825897

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