Here’s a case for all reporters to keep in mind when dealing with stories which involve a question mark over whether the right decision was made at a bail hearing.
The murder of Lancashire nurse Jane Clough by her ex-boyfriend Jonathan Vass has been widely reported. He was on bail at the time for other offences, despite advice from the CPS and police to a judge not to allow such a situation.
The case has gone to Parliament this week with an MP calling for prosecutors to be given the right to appeal a bail hearing decision. The Lancashire Telegraph has covered the story carefully, and crime reporter Sam Chadderton used FOI to get hold of the transcripts of the bail hearings which led to Vass being released on bail:
Now, for the first time, the Lancashire Telegraph has gained access to a full written account of the two bail hearings, under the Freedom of Information Act.
Despite a formal application to the courts service being refused, the judge personally agreed to release the transcripts.
The Liverpool ECHO used FOI to find out how many times police officers at Merseyside Police had been caught breaking data protection laws. The answer: 208 times in three years:
Breaches include officers accessing police computer systems to access classified data about family and friends, spying on ongoing cases and researching for “non-policing” purposes.
Merseyside Police blamed a year-on-year rise down to the fact 130 officers looked at the file involving an allegation against Steven Gerrard.
In the week MPs began looking at revoking part of the smoking ban, the Reading Post revealed the findings of its FOI probe into how well used anti-smoking legislation was in Reading. The answer: Not very. Reading Council has never tried to enforce the ban, with just 60 complaints made about alleged breaches. So what was all the fuss about?
Ok, so the FOI about the number of under tens who have been accused of committing offences has been done many times before – so why mention it now? Simple – the response from West Yorkshire Police was very detailed, and gave the age of the youngest person accused by a crime, thus making it possible for the T&A to report on the five year old accused of criminal damage.
A whole bunch of councils have merged in the last few years – but at what cost? The Stoke Sentinel pushed for answers on this when it submitted FOI requests to the new Cheshire East Council to find out how much had been paid in relocation cost to staff when it had been formed. The answer: £850,000 for people who had to move offices.
The number of police officers suspended from police forces in the north doubled last year, according to the Sunday Sun – with some spending more than a year on gardening leave.
The costs of making staff redundant from authorities has been in the headlines for a while and in Teesside, the Evening Gazette has been steadily revealing the costs at various bodies in its areas. Primary Care Trusts are among those making big redundancies ahead of being scrapped, and the Gazette has made a point of asking for details of the biggest single payout – including 3223k at one health trust.
Covering benefits stories can be tricky as it normally involves being accused of picking on the vulnerable. But this story from the Brighton Argus is worth digging into. It reports on figures, obtained under FOI, which show that an average of 10% of people trying to claim for Employment Support Allowance get it – but in Sussex 15% of all applicants are approved for it. In other words, you’re 50% more likely to get it in Sussex than anywhere else.
The Maidenhead Advertiser is the latest newspaper to do the FOI about the councillors who have been sent reminders for not paying their council tax. Maidenhead Council refused to name the councillors, as have others, but did say five councillors were sent reminders. I quite like the defence of one councillor who said they were so busy it could easily slip a councillor’s mind!
I thought I’d include this story not because it’s an FOI we’ve not heard of before – but because it’s proof that FOI is only ever part of a story. The Lancashire Evening Post reported on the number of foreign trips made by councillors at the expense of taxpayers. What made the story was the response from the council about one trip to Bologna: The council couldn’t remember why councillors went or what was achieved.
And finally one which could run and run, especially in these cash-tight times. The Gazette used FOI to ask how many houses were subject to second-home council tax relief – therefore reducing council tax by 10 per cent. For South Hams, around £700,000 is lost in this relief, and the figures were broken down by area.