FOI Friday: 10 things we’ve discovered this week thanks to the Freedom of Information Act

Private healthcare costs, the burden to taxpayers of a free lunch, convicted teachers carrying on at schools and the number of cases of children being injured or dying while known to social services – just some of the subject matters covered by Freedom of Information requests reported this week.

As I said last week, the purpose of this (hopefully weekly) list is to provide ideas for regional journaists, based on success stories published elsewhere. If you’ve had success with FOI, please feel free to tell me about it…

So, to this week’s list …

1. When discovering nothing existed is a story in itself.

The Huddersfield Examiner reported this week on how the local Green Party had used FOI to discover what plans Kirklees Council had for  bypass around a local village, as local councillors had started dangling a carrot about “reviving” the plans. The FOI revealed no plans had ever existed. A classic case of nothing proving everything?

2. Private healthcare, public money

The Cambridge News was one of a number of newspapers to use the Lib Dems’ FOI-inspired story about the amount NHS trusts were spending on private care for their staff. The defence of “we don’t always have the expertise to treat these conditions” might struggle to hold water in recessionary times – especially if it begs the question: “What about the rest of us?”

3. Children suffering harm or death while known to social services.

The Baby P case shocked everyone – but how common are oversights by social services? In Birmingham last month, a report looked at 15 cases. The Press Association  used the Freedom of Information Act to get details of the serious case reviews conducted by social services – therefore discovering six cases in Derbyshire alone. What this case demonstrates is the ability for a journalist to use FOI to get not just facts, but documents too.

4. Not buckling up.

Sometimes, numbers through FOI make for great stories. Who’d have thought that so many years after seatbelts became law, so many would still be caught not wearing them? 7,902 cases were dealt with by Lancashire Police, reports the Lancashire Telegraph, which in this story demonstrated how FOI can be a handy tool to keep momentum going when running a campaign.

5. Suspended on full pay

Interesting one from the Colchester Gazette, which kept the  story of a college head being suspended for a year rumbling on, by turning to FOI to establish that the suspension had been on full pay. Again, at a time of supposed public sector restraint, taking a year to investigate something might raise eyebrows.

6. Police taser use

The Brighton Argus travelled down the well-worn path of asking police for information on the number of times something had been used – in this case taser guns. But they also made a point of asking who they had been used on – information the police should have to hand given the amount of paperwork required after each time such a gun is used.

7. Money sitting in the council’s bank from planning applications

When I used to cover local government, I always thought it seemed a bit like blackmail for a council to grant planning permission but only if a developer handed over cash for public improvements. Such a deal is know as a Section 106 agreement (catchy, eh?) and while councils have to discuss in public at meetings about such deals being made, they don’t have to announce when the money’s spent.  So the Worcester News used FOI to find out how much was in the Section 106 pot at Worcestershire County Council. Answer: £2.7million. Some questions to be answered there, it seems.

8. The cost of vandalism in schools

Local politicians always talk about “minor” crimes are the ones which upset people the most – and vandalism is one such crime. But what’s the cost? In Flintshire, Wales, it’s £150k a year to local schools, reports the Daily Post after receiving FOI-sourced figures from a Welsh Assembly member.

9. Criminal teachers allowed to keep on teaching

This story from The Times is an interesting one. At first glance, I assumed the Lib Dems, who sourced the information, had gone to government to find out how many teachers had criminal records. But it transpires they went to the General Teaching Council, an organisation probably not known to that many, but which has to comply with FOI legislation. It says the Lib Dems didn’t need to use FOI to get this information – which sounds like an open invite for regional journalists to seek information about cases from their area, too.

10. There’s no such thing as a free lunch…

Unless you work for Highland Council, in which case £350 a day is spent serving up free food to councillors and officers who attend meetings. Politicians will roll their eyes at this story, and perhaps accuse the Inverness Courier of being petty, but stacked up against the need to save £80million over the next three years, it suddenly seems like a bloody good spot.

* * *

*These FOI stories were found searching for the term “FOI” or “Freedom of Information” in Google News. Journalists seem split on whether to say how they found the information or not, hence I suspect many more stories benefitted from FOI research.

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