FOI Friday: 10 things we learnt this week thanks to the Freedom of Information Act

Here’s the first FOI Friday round up of 2010. I’ll be posting a round up of the stories which made the papers over the Christmas period in the next couple of days

1. Phone masts

You’d think something as controversial as a mobile phone mast would need planning permission at a planning meeting. If you did think that, then you’re wrong. According to the Lancashire Telegraph, mobile phone firms need planning permission for masts over 15 metres tall, although structures can be built on private property without it if town halls do not object within 56 days. So the LT used FOI to ask all the councils in its areas for a list of approved phone masts in the area. Although this information would have appeared on weekly planning lists, in this case the total is greater than the sum of the parts. It found 165 mobile phone masts and another 50 proposed, including ones at hospitals. Oddly, Blackburn with Darwen Council said it did not hold a list of mobile phone masts in its area.

2. Broke university students

The Liverpool Daily Post turned to its univerisities for a different take on the financial hardships students can face, asking its four universities for the amounts it had paid out in ‘emergency handouts’ to students who couldn’t make ends meet. The overall figure across Merseyside was in excess of £1.3million to help students. The pay-outs were for a number of reasons ranging from students unable to pay rent, delays, student loan payments, debt repayments, general living costs, travel and childcare.

3. A cushy life for prisoners?

The prison service can be very hard to get information out of via FOI, especially if you’re looking for details relating to a particular prison. But someone’s managed to come up trumps, judging by this story in the Journal. It reports that details of classes prisoners can take at a County Durham jail have emerged via FOI. Inmates at HMP Frankland in County Durham, where Soham killer Ian Huntley is held, can choose to study from a long list of bizarre qualifications, including yoga, meditation and “soap opera studies”.

4. Cheating University students

The Evening Star in Ipswich found that 29 students at a local university had been caught cheating. The story noses in on the fact new technology helped catch the students.

5. How many potholes?

WalesOnline reports on a successful FOI by journalist Hannah Waldram in Cardiff, asking how many potholes were filled in by the council last year and which streets were the worst for potholes.

6. Parking hotspots

An old one, but a good one – and one probably worth revisiting if you’ve done it before to do a compare and contrast. The Norwich Evening News has the list of parking ticket hotspots, courtesy of an FOI to the local council

7. Babies born as drug addicts

Here’s one with the potential to be replicated everywhere. The Plymouth Herald asked its local hospital trust for details of the number of babies born to drug dependent mothers for the past two years. It reports that after delivery, the 63 newborns were transferred to a drug treatment programme to wean them off their addiction. Breaking down the figures year on year shows 32 children delivered by staff at the hospital born to substance-using mothers between January and November 2009; 36 in 2008 (63 of them needed special drug therapy treatment); 28 in 2007; 22 in 2006 and nine in 2005.

8. The different types of drunken revellers.

In recent weeks, we’ve had quite a few FOIs around criminal demographics – numbers of children, numbers of OAPs etc, but the Press in York has gone in at a different angle – seeking details of the demographics and instances of a particular crime type. In this case, it has asked for details of the number of fixed-penalty notices issued by North Yorkshire Police, including what offence was committed. They also sought information on the ages of those fined, and the result was this: Nine pensioners, including a 97-year-old man, were fined, along with 308 teenagers, of whom 49 were underage.

9. The nurses “earning” £122,000 a year

Sometimes, it is the smaller numbers which make a better story. The Conservatives, who appear to be cranking up their use of FOI ahead of the general election, asked all hospital trusts for the hourly rates paid to different agency staff, such as nurses. Some of the figures are quite eye-watering, not least the nurse who’d earn £122,000 if she was employed full time on that rate. Of course, she only sees a fraction of that amount once the agency has taken its cut. Interestingly, the Tories say it’s a waste of money – but fail to point out what they’d do differently.

10. Drunken teachers

Reported here by The Sun, but appearing to focus just on two councils in London, is an FOI which sought to know how many teachers had been disciplined with warnings, suspensions or the sack. Some councils may say they don’t hold this information, and ask for information requests to be directed straight to schools

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One comment

  1. >
    > PRESS RELEASE
    > 9 January 2010
    >
    >
    > A new case may assist anyone trying to obtain access to information
    > held by councils on their commercial contracts.
    >
    > R (on the application of the Veolia ES Nottinghamshire Ltd) v
    > Nottinghamshire County Council [2009] All ER (D) 78 (Oct)
    >
    > See also: ‘Trump Card’ New Law Journal 1 & 8 January 2010 pages 15-16.
    >
    > The High Court considered applications to inspect and copy
    > ‘all books,deeds,contracts,bills,vouchers and receipts’ held by a
    > council, under section 15(1) Audit Commission Act 1998.
    >
    > Cranston J. decided that a ‘commercial confidentiality’ exemption does
    > not apply, as it does to applications under the Freedom of Information
    > Act 2000 or the Environmental Information Regulations 2004
    > (SI2004/3391). An argument by Veolia that such information would
    > damage their commercial interests because the documents would be of
    > value to competitors was rejected.
    >
    > Veolia are seeking to to appeal.
    >
    > In the meantime, those seeking information on their local authority’s
    > commercial dealings will no doubt be rushing to file requests under
    > s.15(1) Audit Commission Act 1998.
    >
    > Alistair Mitchell
    > 49 Chambers
    > Bridgnorth
    > Tel: 01746 761545

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