FOI: Adding a celebrity angle won’t always improve a story…

While searching for stories to include in FOI Friday on Google News, I found this one:


The story, based on an FOI request, goes on:

The most senior policeman in Islington says the borough is not at risk from a Breaking Bad style crystal meth epidemic – despite people being caught dealing in the past year.

A Freedom of Information (FOI) request by the Gazette reveals that three people were arrested for possessing or supplying the Class A drug methamphetamine in 2013.

The drug has been raised into the public consciousness by the hit TV show Breaking Bad, in which a school teacher with terminal cancer starts making the drug to raise cash for his family.

But Det Chf Sup Gerry Campbell, Islington’s borough commander, says the drug – which can have devastating effects for users – is not a problem in the borough.

He said: “Lets face it, meth has been available for a long time – it’s not something new.

“It has been found in London and there have been labs up and running, but as this investigation shows it is not something we would identify with the borough.”

I love the idea of using TV programmes to inspire FOI requests, and this is a great example of that. Reporting, however, that an area isn’t at risk of something most people wouldn’t have thought it might be at risk at, I’m not so sure about.

Half the battle with FOI requests is deciding which ones to invest the effort in when the information arrives.

But at least the people of Islington who were worried, can be less worried now.

FOI FRIDAY: Ambulance delays, lack of dentists, data-snooping coppers and dodging conviction for assault


How to dodge a conviction if you assault someone < Brighton Argus

Thousands of criminals including sex offenders, arsonists and violent offenders have avoided conviction.

Sussex Police introduced community resolution in 2011 to deal with low-level crimes.

But The Argus can reveal that the policy has been used more than 11,000 times in the past three years and has even been used in a case of sexual assault against a child.

Figures released under the Freedom of Information Act show it was used 1,200 times to deal with assaults resulting in an injury, and another 1,531 for assaults without injuries.

Struggling to get a dentist? Here’s why < Lancashire Telegraph

CONCERNS have been raised after the number of people visiting hospital for emergency dental treatment tripled in East Lancashire last year.

Staff at East Lancashire Hospitals NHS Trust (ELHT) gave emergency dental treatment to 322 patients in 2013, which was up from 106 in 2012, according to figures obtained by the Lancashire Telegraph through Freedom of Information laws.

The increase mirrored a national trend which health campaigners said was down to a rise in the number of families struggling to afford regular check-ups on their teeth, with visits to the dentist becoming a ‘luxury’ for many.

Left waiting for an ambulance < North West Evening Mail

FIGURES show since 2012 457 patients in Cumbria have waited for an ambulance for more than an hour.

A Freedom of Information request by the Evening Mail showed 69 of the calls were in Barrow, Ulverston or Millom – with 14 in the area classed as serious Red Two calls.

There were two life-threatening Red One calls in Cumbria which took more than an hour to attend.

Pupil compensation claims continue to mount up < Yorkshire Evening Post

Almost a quarter of a million pounds of public money has been paid out in compensation and legal costs for injuries children have suffered in the city’s primary and secondary schools over the past five years, new figures reveal.

Pay outs include £35,000 after a child broke a limb, and £21,058 given to a pupil who suffered a facial injury.

The figures obtained under the Freedom of Information Act reveal that there been 188 personal injury claims made against schools in Leeds since September 2008.

Of these 39 have been successful resulting in compensation payments of £221,013 since September 2008. Figures show £35,000 was paid out after a pupil suffered a broken limb in 2009 and £21,058 was given to a pupil who suffered a facial injury in 2010.


FOI Friday: The cost of murder, shoplifting hotspots, firefighter complaints and the return of wrong fuel in cop cars


The cost of Murder – Birmingham Mail

West Mercia Police spend fortune in bid to track down killers and see justice done

A Midland police force has spent more than £2.5 million on just FIVE murder investigations in the last five years.

The cases were the most expensive investigated by West Mercia Police, according to figures obtained by the Sunday Mercury.

The most money spent was £900,000 on bringing three Birmingham killers to justice for the brutal killing of a sub-postmaster in January 2009.

The investigation led to the successful prosecution of the killers of Craig Hodson-Walker, murdered during a botched armed raid.

Top of the shop … lifting hotspots < Manchester Evening News

Primark’s flagship Market Street store has topped a league of shame of Greater Manchester’s shoplifting hotspots.

The Manchester city centre shop called police more than three times a week to report shoplifting offences during 2013.

Figures released to the M.E.N by Greater Manchester Police under Freedom of Information laws detail the locations for more than 14,500 shoplifting offences last year.

Market Street – the city centre’s main shopping hub – was home to three of the region’s top four hotspots for police call-outs for reports of theft.

The crimes being committed on Facebook < Cambridge News

Facebook users have been reported by ‘friends’ to Cambridgeshire police for blackmail, child rape and grooming, as well as death threats.

Users of the social networking site have flagged up 169 possible crimes to officers since 2011.

They range from blackmail to bike theft and harassment to rape, data released by the force has showed.

Also on the Facebook crime list was harassment, intimidating or intending to instil fear in a witness to a crime, fraud, racial hatred, rape of children and threats to kill.


FOI: The council which doesn’t want you to know the things it expects you to want to know about

foiA while ago, there was a rather inspired FOI request put forward by the Norwich Evening News, asking police in Norfolk for copies of all press releases and statements prepared on a ‘if asked’ basis – ie they aren’t proactively released.

A friend of mine who works in PR Tweeted me at the time to say that such an FOI at the local authority he worked at would be a nighmare … for them. Which obviously would be a brilliant result for the local newspaper.

To me, it’s the classic example of an FOI working really well – it involves the journalist knowing how an authority operates and targeting specific information carefully.


FOI: The clown FOI which is a masterclass in getting information from a database

Of all the sources I use to find good Freedom of Information-based stories,  funny site The Poke isn’t among them. I do, however, follow them on Twitter, so when this tweet came up, it was like they’d invented personalised linkbait just for me:

thepokeClowns have been in the news quite a bit recently, largely thanks to this quirky FOI-based story which cropped up all over the place over Christmas. And there are problems in the Fens too.

Anyway, that prompted Richard Osley, the deputy editor of the Camden New Journal to submit a request to the Met Police in London. You can read his post here.

The response from the Met is at this link. I’m highlighting this FOI because I think it’s a brilliant example of how to get the most out of a databse you know a public authority holds:


While the response is exactly what it should be: The information requested, in full, in an easy to use way:

clowns2Asking for a specific key word to be searched reduces the risk of the FOI going over cost limits, and also reduces the chance of you missing out on information you might find interesting, or making the FOI impossible.

For example, when working at the Liverpool Daily Post, I once asked for details of all crimes at schools in Merseyside. The police said it couldn’t provide that detail within the cost limit because it would have to filter out any crime which was committed at an address – eg School Lane – but not at a school. Flipping that on its head and asking for any case referring to ‘school’ would have solved that.

Of course, there are other famous ‘database’ FOIs too. As anyone who has sat through one of my FOI presentations knows only too well!

FOI Friday: Social workers sacked, unsolved crimes, bailiffs after benefit cuts and dodgy drivers


Thirty-year-old unsolved murders in Surrey – Surrey Advertiser/GetSurrey

A total of 41 murder cases in the county – the earliest dating back to 1974 – remain unsolved to this day, the Surrey Advertiser can reveal.

Data released under the Freedom of Information Act has revealed murders in Epsom, Ash, Guildford, Effingham, Ashtead, Virginia Water and Woking for which nobody has been convicted.

Detective Superintendent Nick May, of the Surrey and Sussex Major Crime Team, said: “The overall number of unsolved murders in Surrey remains low, with an average of just over one a year since 1974, and no unsolved murders have taken place in the county in the past five years.

Malnutrition cases on the rise – Burton Mail

DIAGNOSED cases of malnutrition in Burton have trebled since 2008 – an increase which mirrors a national trend – according to figures obtained by the Mail.

The number of patients either admitted with malnutrition or treated for malnutrition at Queen’s Hospital, Burton, increased from less than five in 2008 to 15 in 2013.

The data was obtained after a Freedom of Information request.

Malnutrition can be caused by a poor diet, a lack of food or illnesses which prevents the absorption of nutrients.

Chop chop trees – Sheffield Star

Sheffield is being stripped of more than 1,000 trees in just over one year.

Figures obtained by The Star under the Freedom of Information Act reveal the council is working to fell 1,200 trees from a stock of 36,000 by March.

Streets Ahead contractor Amey has already pulled down 750 highway trees – some 100 years old – which they claim are dead, dying, diseased, dangerous or damaging structures since August 2012.


FOI Friday: Tasered animals, council zero hour contracts, overpaid NHS staff and missing library books

Back from a summer break to make even an MP envious, here’s the return of FOI Friday. Thanks to several students on the PA Training course in Newcastle for giving me a nudge by saying they enjoyed it…


1. Tasered animals < Lancashire Evening Post

Police officers had to use tasers on animals on 13 separate occasions across the county between 2010 and 2012, figures reveal.

The figures were released following a Freedom of Information request to Lancashire Constabulary.

They show that in 2010 tasers were used on animals five times, a further six times in 2011 and twice in 2012.

2. Football hooliganism back < Manchester Evening News

A shock dossier compiled by the M.E.N. reveals that the menace of football hooliganism is far from extinct.

Documents obtained under Freedom of Information laws show police had to deal with a catalogue of booze-fuelled hooliganism at United and City games last season

3. Nurses not trusted to work without supervision < The Scotsman

MORE than a quarter of Scottish nurses placed under supervision as they cannot be trusted to be left alone are working in Lothian hospital wards, new figures have revealed.

Despite being fully qualified, there are 27 nurses in the region whose performances have been deemed so poor that bosses have had to arrange for more senior staff to watch over them.

The data, revealed under the Freedom of Information Act, showed that seven of the staff members in “management of employee capability” programmes were working in the Royal Infirmary, the region’s main acute hospital.


Think FOI only goes back to 2005? Here’s how the Act helped unearth social history from 1914

Liverpool’s city centre war memorial

Next year marks the 100th anniversary of the First World War, the last European war to involve just throwing thousands of men at each other in the hope of eventually overpowering the enemy.

A war the like of which we will – hopefully – never see again, it’s also a war which needs to be remembered, not only for the tens of thousands who lost their lives, but also for the impact it has had on subsequent conflicts, right up to the current civil war in Syria.

Chemical warfare was first deployed in the First World War, while the lessons learnt from deploying early, clunky, machinery helped shape the equipment forces went into battle with in the Second World War and beyond.


Using FOI to uncover political disquiet, infighting and backstabbing

The Tour De France – and helmets are need behind the scenes too

In an age of spin and media management, getting to the heart of a political story can be tougher than ever. Thank goodness then for FOI – when used effectively it can be devastatingly brilliant.

There are two main reasons why I believe FOI is so important for journalists. Firstly, it enables us to ask the questions about the issues we want to cover – rather than the issues the authorities would like us to focus on. Whether that’s the number of parking tickets issued per street, or the number of children who go missing, it’s vital we have this tool to turn to.

The second reason – and one I sense is used less often by journalists – is that it enables us to ask questions about things we suspect are going on, or perhaps have heard are going on, but haven’t been able to get confirmation about. In short – the truth behind the headlines.

And perhaps the best example I’ve seen of that use of FOI is featured in today’s Yorkshire Post, which has lifted the lid on a remarkable row over the staging of part of the Tour De France in Yorkshire next year. 

Yorkshire went it alone against a bid supported by UK Government, which have seen part of the race held in Scotland. Yorkshire’s bid won.


FOI Friday: Lasering planes, worst days to die in hospital and reasons for refusing council houses

FOIFRIDAYLOGOThe day of the week you’re most likely to die in hospital < Surrey Mirror

PATIENTS are far more likely to die at East Surrey Hospital on a Monday than any other day of the week, according to figures obtained via a Freedom of Information Act request.

The figures highlight an apparent sizeable disparity between death rates on different days of the week, with 40 per cent more deaths on Mondays than on Saturdays, the day of the week when you are least likely to die at the hospital.

Seven people a day taken to court for unpaid council tax < Romford Recorder

Seven people a day were taken to court by Brentwood Council last year for failing to pay their council tax.

And thousands of households were in arrears from April 2012 to March 2013, the new figures show.

Tax of £1.9million was owed at the time the summonses were issued, a freedom of information request by the Recorder has revealed.

In the same year, the council took 2,754 people to court to recoup the money.

The council says it recovered £1.3m – leaving £650,000 still outstanding at the end of the period. Most of this has since been recovered.

Hospitals using ‘zero hours’ contracts < Northern Echo

SOME of the region’s hospitals are under fire after thousands of staff were placed on controversial “zero-hours” contracts – with no guarantee of pay.

An investigation by Labour found at least 2,503 workers are now on the contracts, some of the 67,000 used across the NHS in England.

At York Hospitals NHS Trust, which runs hospitals across North Yorkshire, the number has soared to 1,069 – from just 166 three years ago.

Both North Tees and Hartlepool (786 staff) and South Tees Hospitals (312) trusts also revealed widespread use of the contracts, although those numbers are falling.

Total use across the North-East and North Yorkshire is likely to be higher, because three hospital trusts did not respond to freedom of information requests.