If you saw the national newspapers or TV news on Saturday, then you’ll know that The New Year Honours were somewhat dominated by Olympians. And why not? 2012, after all, is a year which will be remembered for sport.
10 good examples of FOI in action from the local, regional and national press:
Dog bites postman may not be the most original story of all time – but the injuries postmen in Wales receive when attacked by dogs was certainly eye-opening – from serious injuries to the skull to the slightly more comical, but I suspect very painful, bites on the backside
This is a brilliant example of how FOI can be used to challenge arguments put forward by councils. Kirklees Council plans to shut a whole bunch of libraries because it can’t afford them. But is it closing the right ones? The Examiner has brought that into question by obtaining the cost to run each library, and dividing it by the number of visits to each library? Some of the most cost effective are the ones at risk.
Kent County Council has overpaid council workers (insert Taxpayers Alliance smart comment here) by £1.5million in the last three years due to payroll errors. An interesting story to pursue at a time of cuts?
The problems at Morecambe Bay Hospitals Trust’s maternity department have been well documented, but this story – based on an FOI submitted by a member of the public – begs new questions: How did problems persist when civil law suits – 37 since 2002 – were coming in left, right and centre? The principle of asking for the number of claims is worth pursuing in other areas too. In the past, some hospital trusts have diverted such requests to the NHS Litigation Authority – the in-house legal service for the NHS.
However, this FOI proves hospitals can answer the queries, and should be able to say what areas of the hospital civil claims relate to.
If you believe the government, then education – like health – funding is being protected. The reality, however, can be different. The Swindon Advertiser proved this by asking the council for details of the number of teacher made redundant last year. The number – 11 – is expected to rise. In some areas, this can be a reasonably easy FOI to do, if the council collates the information. If not, or in areas where academies are growing in number, this might be one which has to go to every school.
The cost of the Olympics spreads far beyond London, according to this FOI-based story, which revealed the cost of hosting the torch relay through Cardiff was £140,000, with hundreds of thousands put aside to clean the city ahead of football matches.
This is just a personal opinion, but I often think local and regional newspapers don’t take public transport seriously enough – perhaps because often, so few in a newsroom use buses and trains regularly. This story from the Lancashire Evening Post is a good one – most crimes reported on buses don’t get solved.
This is an FOI which comes around from time to time but is always worth doing again and again. Asking health authorities, councils and the police for details of their data protection breaches, which have to be recorded and reported to the Information Commissioner, often yields interesting results … and in the case of this story in Belfast, it’s patient details being posted on Facebook.
Truancy FOIs are ten a penny, but few go into the the level of detail that this one, from the Teesside Evening Gazette, did. It reveals the numbers of days lost, the number of prosecutions, the total amount in fines and – thanks to clever use of Tableau – the value of fine against each day lost through truancy.
A good example of FOI being the start of the story – getting data on fuel thefts led to a really interesting interview with the police on how they are tackling what appeared to have been a recession-triggered crisis.
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FOI Friday is compiled using Google News and tip-offs sent to this blog or to me via Twitter @davidhiggerson
The death of Gary Speed was one of those news stories which, when read first on Twitter, always makes me think: “I need to see that several more times from people I trust before I believe it.” Confirmation followed soon after.
As is increasingly the case on social networks, the actual news was soon superceded by speculation about what happened, while broadcast news and news websites kept – largely – to the facts and went heavily on tributes.
But Monday morning brought another aspect to the coverage – content from some of the journalists who knew him best – regional journalists who covered the clubs he played for and, latterly, managed.
As I tend to do from time to time on this blog, here’s a round-up of the front page from the areas with the closest connection to Speed the player and Speed the manager:
EFFORTS to fight a giant blaze were hit by concerns over safety equipment.
Internal fire service documents seen by the Chronicle reveal the fire caused damage to the neck straps on firefighters’ breathing masks that did not meet required standards.
The fault was raised in a report compiled by chiefs and an investigation was recommended.
The documents, obtained under the Freedom of Information Act, also reveal how the cost of the operation exceeded £50,000.
Details released under the Freedom of Information Act show police have confiscated hundreds of unusual items which have been used in attacks or deemed offensive weapons.
The haul also includes a pizza shovel, a quill pen and a pool ball in a sock.
MORE than £4m was seized from North East criminals in just two years as police used court powers to strip them of their ill-gotten gains.
Criminals on Tyneside and in Northumberland paid back nearly £700,000 in cash while, following examinations by forensic accountants, fraudsters have also had to pay nearly £2.5m to cover the cost of their assets.
Financial investigators calculated the true value of their benefits to determine exactly what they owed from their businesses.
There’s been a lot of debate about how valuable, or otherwise, the police crime maps are. They tell you about crime a month later, aren’t that accurate when it comes to naming the location and won’t tell you if the crime has been solves.
The Oxford Mail has perhaps produced something of at least equal value with an FOI to Thames Valley Police asking for an area by area breakdown of crimes committed, and the percentage solved. Not surprisingly, perhaps, there’s quite a postcode lottery at play. I would imagine the key to getting a success with this FOI is to ask for the figures broken down by area the police recognise – eg a police beat or area.
In a week when the weekly bin collection was dropped as a policy by the government in England, a timely story about fines for leaving your bins out if you live in Cardiff:
Hundreds of households have been fined by a council for leaving their wheelie bins and rubbish bags out on the wrong day, we can reveal.
Cardiff council issued £100 fines to 416 homes in the year between April 2010 and March 2011, a Freedom of Information request to the authority showed.
According to the Manchester Evening News, town halls in Greater Manchester have received 2,000 complaints about noisy animals in the last year – including 100 about chickens.
Among the more offbeat noisy complaints was one about a vocal parrot in Bury.
Proof of the value of local knowledge when it comes to an FOI came from the South Wales Echo this week. Ed Walker initially had his request for the names of all venues caught selling booze to youngsters refused by the authorities – so he appealed it, citing public interest because under-aged drinking was a big issue at community police meetings. The police relented and the offending venues were named and shamed this week.
The Northampton Chronicle revealed that the local police had spent more than £36,000 on promotional items in the last two years, including cash for promotional lip balm. This Is Cornwall has a similar story, detailing how money was spent on crime-fighting tools such as branded pencils
It was a bit of a battle to get regional development agencies covered by the FOI Act in the first place and now the government plans to scrap them because the organisations are now considered poor value for money. That makes them ripe for FOI requests, and the Manchester Evening News was able to report on the £20k spent on corporate entertainment and car hire for its chief executive.
The Birmingham Mail decided to look into the amount spent on promoting the city’s new hospital which opened over the summer. The hospital trust does have its own press and PR team – it is, after all, a big hospital serving a big area. But it turns out the hospital spent an extra £64k on bringing in externals PRs to promote the new hospital. Value for money?
Starting this week with the Journal in Newcastle, which used FOI to find out the extent of alcohol-related problems suffered by children admitted to hospital:
Under the Freedom of Information Act, The Journal asked North East health trusts for details of children aged between 0 and 17 who were found to have consumed alcohol when they were treated in hospital over the last five years.
The answer was almost 1,800 – including 22 under 10 and one less than 1.
Almost 4,000 policing days were lost in North Wales last year due to depression and stress, according to figures obtained by the Daily Post.
A brilliant tale which appears to have started life on the letters page of the Shropshire Star. A reader used FOI to find out where the Welsh Assembly had offices. There are 72 in Wales, 16 of which are in Cardiff – plus plenty abroad too. I remember Lancashire County Council used to have an office in Brussels, but this FOI could have legs for all manner of authorities – not least the soon to be departed regional development agencies.
Is the NHS failing the morbidly obese? The South Wales Echo found out, using FOI, that just one in 10 people referred to hospitals for weight loss treatment were paid for by the NHS. In many cases, people had resorted to taking out loans to cover the treatment. There’s a moral argument in here as well – but also a good extraction of data via FOI.
A big success for the Salford Advertiser this week when it received a list of the top 10 money-spinning speed cameras in the area, including the amount each one had raised and the number of tickets issued. Why is this a big success? Because some speed cameras bodies – sorry, ‘speed awareness partnerships’ – won’t release this information on the grounds it might affect their ability to solve crime – ie make people aware of the fact the camera is switched on.
Some police forces are quite good at releasing details of hoax calls, knowing it’ll make the news. At others, FOI requests do that job. The South Wales Echo reports this week on an FOI request sent to police asking for details of hoax calls. Presumably, reports or logs of these calls and their contents are kept, and from this the story comes.
The Edinburgh Evening News reports on how much the city council made from renting out its parks for big events, such as festivals and sports meets – some £285,000 a year.
One of those FOIs which involves you having to know a bit about the subject to be able to ask information about it. Did you know civil servants in some cases can begin drawing a pension while still working? Apparently so – and the Stoke Sentinel reports on the impact it is having in its area.
It’s been a week for hearing about cutbacks in the public sector. Councils will argue they are as a lean as they can be anyway. But the South Wales Echo, using FOI, has learnt that £350k a year is spent £350k on top-of-the-range cars to ferry their political masters around.
The Northumberland Gazette reports this week on findings from a freelance journalist who asked for the results of cocaine spotting operation in Alnwick which concluded that 24 of the 33 pubs tested in the area had traces of cocaine in them. At the time, the police only issued vague details of the results to the local paper. Given the connection Harry Potter has to Alnwick – I think parts were filmed there – the story has been huge nationally, and the police have been left to defend why they were so vague on detail in the first place.
A great result for the Streatham Guardian which used FOI to find out the number of children being treated for drug addications – including booze – in the area. The information came from the local PCT – or NHS Lambeth - and led to this story:
NHS Lambeth said the majority were treated for cannabis use, but “a very low amount” were treated for other drugs such as cocaine, as well as alcohol misuse.
The figures show 52, 12 to 15-year-olds were treated in 2007-08, 56 in 2008-09 and 46 by the end of 2009.
It is estimated this could rise to 61 when the full statistics for 2009-10 are published later this year. Some 22 were treated for alcohol abuse.
They were referred for treatment by themselves, parents, schools, social workers and outreach programmes.
Befordshire Police ‘rented out’ its officers to no fewer than 33 organisatons, reports Luton Today, thanks to and FOI request, including town centre committees, the local hospital and a parish council. The FOI went to the local police force.
You’d like to think if an organisation such as the Royal College of Paediatrics was asked to investigate problems at a hospital after the death of a child, it would be a given that said report must be made public. Apparently not, according to the BBC, which says such a report at a hospital in Birmingham was only made public after its FOI request. Worth noting if your hospital has suspicious deaths.
I did a similar FOI to this in 2008 – asking Merseyside health authorities how many times they turned down people for drugs which consultants said should be funded by the NHS. The fact that the problem is still so bad in some areas, as reported by the Oxford Mail, is quite shocking.