Five things we wouldn't know without the Freedom of Information Act

Freedom of Information Act requests have exposed everything from expenses scandal to hunt for Nessie

The Houses of UK Parliament
(Image credit: Dan Kitwood/Getty I)

Requests under the Freedom of Information (FoI) Act will remain free of charge after a government review found the legislation to be "working well".

The FoI Commission was asked to examine the law following concerns that "sensitive" information was not being adequately protected. The report concluded the act had helped "change the culture of the public sector".

Cabinet Office minister Matt Hancock said: "We will not make any legal changes to FoI. We will spread transparency throughout public services, making sure all public bodies routinely publish details of senior pay and perks. After all, taxpayers should know if their money is funding a company car or a big pay-off."

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The legislation has been a boon for the nation's journalists, who have used information received under the act to expose wrongdoing, injustice and incompetence in public institutions. Here are five of the biggest scoops uncovered using Freedom of Information requests:

Expenses scandal

Heather Brooke, professor of journalism at City University, literally wrote the book on the Freedom of Information Act. After spending four years submitting requests for MPs' expenses which were repeatedly denied by a recalcitrant House of Commons, in 2008 Brooke went to the High Court. The court ruled in favour of releasing the records. Brooke had tugged the first thread in the expenses scandal, which soon unravelled into a full-blown national crisis as MPs expenditure – including purchases of birdhouses and X-rated films – was made public.

Seven Labour MPs resigned from their cabinet posts and another 19 MPs from both sides of the house either resigned or chose not to stand for re-election as a direct result of their involvement in the scandal. Two members of the House of Lords were convicted of false accounting. The scandal resulted in the creation of the Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority, which now monitors the expenses and allowances system.

Prince Charles

An FoI request made by anti-monarchy group Republic revealed that Prince Charles has been receiving confidential Cabinet papers for decades. The group asked to see details of the Cabinet's protocol manual, called the precedent book, and found that Prince of Wales is included alongside the Queen in the 'standard circulation' of Cabinet memoranda. The documents give the Prince, who has repeatedly been accused of 'meddling' in politics, access to sensitive information on a wide range of topics, from Europe to national security.

Graham Smith, the head of Republic, told the BBC that the findings prove the heir to the throne is "essentially a minister not attending cabinet", although some argued that the Prince had a right to see the documents as preparation for his future role as sovereign. Labour MP Paul Flynn has called for an inquiry into the arrangement.

Council spending

In May 2011, a Daily Telegraph investigation revealed that local councils had spent up to £100m on credit cards which funded lavish dinners, luxury hotels and state-of-the-art gadgets. Several local councils were found to have racked up eye-watering bills of more than £1,000 on 'official' dinners, champagne receptions and assorted 'networking events'.

The figures, obtained by a Freedom of Information request, revealed that another £2m was spent on accommodation, including five-star hotels in New York and Singapore. Hundreds of thousands of pounds went on luxury items from Tiffany, John Lewis and Marks and Spencer, while other councils used public money to fund theme park outings and paintballing trips.

Communities secretary Eric Pickles condemned local authorities who appeared to be living the "high life" on the backs of taxpayers, and said that forcing councils to disclose their expenditure would help to curb "the culture of wild overspends and excess".

Diplomatic immunity

Since the Freedom of Information Act came into effect, journalists have been probing the Foreign Office for data on foreign envoys who have escaped prosecution in the UK using their diplomatic immunity. In 2011, the Evening Standard used via an FoI request to reveal that 59 foreign diplomats over a three-year period had dodged arrest for serious crimes including rape, sexual assault and theft.

Data obtained by showed that one diplomat from Sierra Leone had been accused of rape, while others were suspected of a wide array of crimes ranging from GBH to fraud. Shoplifting and drink-driving were the most common transgressions, with a Vatican City official suspected of driving under the influence. Immunity can be waived on agreement with the diplomat's home nation, but the Foreign Office admitted that 11 requests to do so had been rejected over the same three-year period.

The search for Nessie

In 2006, The Sunday Times used information gathered using FoI requests to track the extraordinary saga of Whitehall's search for the Loch Ness monster. Papers from the 1970s and 1980s obtained by the Times exposed civil servants' concern that Nessie could become the target of poachers if the monster's existence could be confirmed – although mandarins also noted the potential tourism benefits.

Even more bizarre was a letter from the Department of the Environment to the Scottish Home and Health Department discussing the possibility of importing specially-trained bottlenose dolphins from the USA to explore the loch for any signs of the creature. "There are other factors, mainly political, that you might wish to consider before the licence is issued," read the memo, which went unanswered – probably wisely. Whitehall's interest probably stemmed from the famous 1972 photo taken by monster hunter Dr Robert Rines which purported to show Nessie.

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