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.
Sure, we’ve seen FOI requests about the number of reports of racism recorded by schools or local authorities – but this is the first time I’ve seen a figure for the number of times police have been called in to investigate racism in schools. That’s what the Western Morning News uncovered.
Wirral Council has spent more than £1m sponsoring football team Tranmere Rovers over the last decade, according to information released under Freedom of Information laws to the Liverpool Echo. I suspect a lot of councils have spent a fair bit over the years – Lancashire County Council’s logo has been almost ever-present at Preston North End – but I suppose it depends on what the money was spent on which makes or breaks the story.
Hmmm. A one-off or something symptomatic of redundancies in local government? The EADT reports how spending on temps has doubled at one local council in the last year.
With £9,000 a year tuition fees very likely for many students starting university, there’s probably never been a better time to stick the finances of universities under the FOI microscope. The Sunday Sun has done just that, asking for the expenses of senior officials at universities in its areas:
UNIVERSITY bosses notched up more than £130,000 on credit cards and expenses in two years….on five-star hotels, posh restaurants and supermarket shopping.
A former Teesside University Deputy Vice Chancellor put £116 on the plastic during a trip to a Singapore boozer.
And Northumbria pro-vice chancellor, Professor Paul Croney, claimed for a £652 bill at a Hong Kong bar and restaurant.
The Sunday Sun asked five of the North’s universities – Northumbria, Newcastle, Durham, Teesside and Sunderland – to show us bills submitted by their Pro-Vice Chancellors and Deputy Vice Chancellors over the last two years, a request made under the Freedom of Information Act.
The figure – £132,494 spent by the 25 executives whose UK average salary tops £60,000 – has emerged in the week that Newcastle University announced they are planning to join Durham University by charging £9,000 tuition fees.
Can such expenses be tolerated when they are effectively been funded by higher tuition fees? Some of the best information lies in the smallest details:
More than half of that total [at Durham] covered a £44,225 ‘Travel Card’ bill for Professor Seth Kunin in the Arts and Humanities department.
And in Teesside – which seems to tell its top staff to buy food for events from supermarkets and claim it back – there was this gem:
Professor Cliff Allan – who has since left for another university – spent £12,509 in the two-years, staying at several five-star hotels in India and China, including The Imperial in New Delhi. He also spent £60.56 on his Barclaycard in Housams 1985 Ltd, a Middlesbrough DIY store – which the university said relates to three “minor items of office equipment”.During a visit to Singapore in November 2009 he also spent £116.33 in the Cocoon Bar & Supperclub.
There’s a growing rumbling in university circles that universities should be exempt from FOI because they won’t be relying on the public purse directly in years to come. I think we all know that’s more than a little misleading.
To Crawley [and the Observer] we go for an old favourite – the speed camera FOI. I mention it here because Sussex Police has bucked a trend among police forces and revealed the location of the busiest speed camera – ie the one issuing the most tickets – and the number of tickets issued. Other police forces have said no in the past for various reasons, my favourite being the fear that such information could lead to vandalism. For anyone asking this question again, referring to Sussex in the FOI request might be a good idea.
The attacks against council big wigs go on – and the Chorley Guardian spotted one FOI-based national story which showed that four of their council’s officials, between them, earned £500,000. I mention this story here because it’s a good example of taking someone else’s FOI story further, and getting more out of it. In this case, the Guardian got the chief executive, Donna Hall, to open up her pay package to the paper which provided much more context.
Good stuff from the Coventry Telegraph which used FOI to find out various statistics from the Driving Standards Agency about driving tests in the Coventry area – including someone who had 25 attempts before passing!
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.
The Edingburgh Evening News reports this week on the results of an FOI request submitted by a member of the public, which asked for copies of credit card expenses submitted by senior police officers in the Borders and Lothian police area – including trips to McDonald’s.
A summary of their claims between September and November last year, released following a freedom of information request by a member of the public, shows that officers spent more than £11,000 on credit cards issued by the force in three months.
Credit cards were given to 18 officers to pay for expenses while conducting investigations, or attending conferences or training.
This isn’t the first time I’ve mentioned FOI requests which have sought the details of credit card statements for accounts belonging to a public authority, but it appears to be worth mentioning again as it could be a very rich area.
A particularly timely FOI result in the Western Morning News this week, which sought to use FOI to work out the actual cost of holding a meeting of the Cabinet in Exeter. The Cabinet Office said it paid around £51k – but the police say there are ‘too many budget codes’ to be able to say how much it cost them. Oddly, West Yorkshire Police could work it out when it was in their area.
I said last week I’d blog in a different post about good FOI stories which emerged as Christmas specials in newspapers over Christmas – I meant to do it this week but didn’t get chance.
So, for now, here are 10 stories generated via FOI which have appeared in the regional media over the past seven days:
The BBC’s Inside Out programme in the West Midlands found a very interesting story when it sent over 70 FOIs to councils and police forces to discover how many cab and taxi drivers had been given licences despite having criminal convictions. Despite offences including drugs and indecent assault, some 209 drivers were given licences, the BBC found. Interesingly, these decision tend to have to be made at supposedly public licensing committee meetings, but this sort of information is normally dealt with in private session so as not to reveal personal details about an applicant, so FOI really is the only way to find this information out.
The Sun used FOI to find out what the Ministry of Defence had compsensated people for, other than injuries suffered in combat. Among the results was this gem:
A farmer has been paid £42,000 by the Ministry of Defence after he claimed his chickens laid fewer eggs because they were frightened by the noise from jets including the Red Arrows.
A compare and contrast with the amount paid to injured soldiers made this story what it really is. It’s also an FOI which could be replicated across all walks of government, local and national.
The Stage magazine reports that FOI has revealed how effective new legislation design to protect would-be performers from dodgy agents has been. Basically, it banned the practice of up-front fees. Admittedly, the fact 60 such agents have had action taken against them, with362 complaints made, is quite a niche story – but the principle of using FOI to check out how well a headline-grabbing piece of legislation has actually been has paid off once again.
Getting hold of emails which contradict public statements, police forces trying to defend not investigating crimes and the university which bowed to the public interest test. It might nearly be Christmas but the regional media has turned up some great FOI stories this week. Here are 10 from a Google News search:
There’s been a bit of a barney going on in Preston recently over the decision to move the Football Museum from Deepdale, home of Preston North End, to the arty Urbis in Manchester, a venue which has little connection to football. This week, the Lancashire Evening Post successfully used FOI to get hold of documents and emails which showed that the Football Museum bosses, who had made many big promises about staying in Preston, had been holding discussions about moving for a very long time. This story will certainly add to the bitter taste felt in Preston about the decision to move, and the fact discussions were going for such a long time does place a questionmark over commitments made to Preston. The point here being: Always ask for the emails.
An interesting take on a set of crime figures released under the Freedom of Information Act to the Beccles and Bungay Journal. It sought details on shoplifting figures and was told there had been a 400 case increase in the last year. That provided the basis of a story which sought expert opinion on the type of shoplifting, and which concluded that the recession was forcing desperate middle class types to commit shoplifting.
The Western Morning News turned to FOI to try and establish if the Government’s top representative in the South West was having his commuting costs covered by the taxpayer, given that he doesn’t live in the region. Turns out he is, some £8,000 in so-called “excess fares” which are paid to civil servants whose place of work changes. Worth bearing in mind if similar cases loom elsewhere.