FOI Friday: Ten things uncovered thanks to the Freedom of Information Act this week

In the “about” page of this blog, I alluded to the fact I wanted to look at the Freedom of Information Act.

The main reason for this is that the FOI Act has been of massive use to me over the last few years – first as political reporter and chief reporter at the Lancashire Evening Telegraph and then while on the newsdesk at the Liverpool Daily Post.

I believe strongly that, for regional journalists, it is an incredibly powerful tool which journalists shouldn’t be afraid of using. And I also believe that may regional FOI requests can be replicated across the country.

Which is where FOI Friday comes in. Yes, it’s a lame name, but I hope (famous last words for any blogger) to spot stories generated by regional journalists (and I mean regional journalists in the most inclusive sense of the phrase) and highlight them here in a bit of a list each week (or as near to each week as I can).

Of course, if you’ve struck gold with an FOI request, feel free to contact me here and let me know.

So, to the ones I’ve spotted this week:

1. Councils spending cash to fight equal pay claims

This one popped up across the UK this week thanks to the public sector Unison union, which surveyed 50 local authorities, using the Freedom of Information Act, to establish how much these councils had spent in legal fees defending these claims. The figures ranged from £75,000 in Flintshire, as reported by the Flintshire Chronicle to £1.3million in the Midlands area of Sandwell, as reported by the Birmingham Mail. That’s 50 councils covered by Unison, which even with my poor grasp of maths, suggests there are at least twice as many more to ask about.

There’s a wider point here too – councils are nearly always locked in some sort of legal row: think care home closures, school reorganisations, compulsory purchase orders and so on. Unison’s work proves a point here – it’s possible to find out how much such legal action costs.

2. How young is the youngest “criminal?”

Wiltshire Police was the centre of attention this week when it transpired they had investigated a two-year-old for allegedly damaging a car. I’m not sure where the story began life – the earliest entry I can find is on the North Wiltshire Gazette and Herald, although it’s on the Daily Mail website that details of the FOI request emerge:

The force was asked to disclose how many children aged under 10 – below the age of criminal responsibility – it arrested between 2007 and 2009.

This probably falls into the “perennial” section of an FOI list – but that doesn’t mean it’s not worth doing, in my book. This was the result when I carried out a similar exercise for the Liverpool Daily Post. I mention this here not to boast, but to prove it’s a FOI request which works.

3. Britain’s most effective cop

This one’s been everywhere this week, starting off in Jane’s Police Review. But seeing as I can’t link to them, as they’ve put the story behind a paywall, I’ll link to how the story manifested itself in the EADT. Proof that asking for simple statistics can deliver very good stories?

4. How many people are responsible for council sickies?

The numbers councils put out on how many days are lost through sickness are often so big as to be meaningless, while the average per member of staff can also be pointless to. So this story from the Daily Record proves it could be worth asking how the authority determines long-term sick leave and how many days off each of the 20 most absent people had, and for what reason.

5. Making crime stats real: Asking for the where and when

The South Wales Evening Post reported this week about which cash machines in its area had been tampered by skimmers over the last year. It seems they had a bit of a fight to get the information – but it’s really useful stuff for people in the area who want to keep their cards safe in the future.

6. Who’s getting the council’s hospitality?

The Birmingham Post asked Birmingham City Council about who they had been lavishing hospitality on at Birmingham City and Aston Villa games. The results make interesting reading – and even though councils would probably hide behind confidentiality to resist naming who was a guest, there’s no harm in asking for a reason why someone was considered suitable to attend.

7. Use of terrorism laws to snoop by councils

The Wandsworth Guardian this week reported that the local council had used Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act (Ripa) legislation 300 times in four years to “snoop” on residents. That’s for things like parking offences and fly-tipping. Given councils have to account for each use of this legislation, it should be quite easy for them to provide information on the “offences” they probed this way.

8. What’s been stolen from your police station?

The BBC in Lincolnshire revealed this week the number of thefts which had occurred inside the county’s police stations – totally some £50,000.  Simple but effective?

9. Hospital spending millions on agency staff

At a time when all the political talk is about slashing budgets, asking questions about how money is spent in the NHS seems quite timely. This story from the Dorest Echo will doubtless raise some interesting questions – especially on whether £14million on agency staff costs could have been spent more effectively.

10. Pest control at hospitals

The Courier in Dundee reports about the number of times pest controllers have been called into the local hospital. Rabbits, seagulls, mice, rats and bats were all causing problems at the hospitals in Tayside, they found out. This information came via an FOI to the hospital.

*These FOI stories were found searching for the term “FOI” or “Freedom of Information” in Google News. Journalists seem split on whether to say how they found the information or not, hence I suspect many more stories benefitted from FOI research.

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