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

Here’s this week’s round-up of stories which have made the regional press thanks to clever use of the Freedom of Information Act. Highlights this week include rich dentists, councils earning money from sunbeds, released murderers and two old favourites: stolen data and the odd use of anti-terrorist legislation…

1. How much councils earn from sunbeds

A brilliant story to kick-off this week’s FOI round-up from the Newcastle Evening Chronicle. On one hand, the Government spends money trying to keep us off sunbeds. On the other hand, local councils still have sunbeds in leisure centres. And councils in the Tyne and Wear area make £160k a year off them. Given councils are supposed to encourage their residents to be healthy, it begs some questions…

Who to ask for this information: The local council

2. How much data gets stolen?

It appears a software company used FOI to approach the Information Commissioner’s office to ask for the number of data breaches reported to it last year. The answer? 356 – a lot of it down to misplaced flash drives, laptops left on trains and so on. 18 months ago, you couldn’t look at a news stand without seeing some data loss or another – but has the situation got any better? In 2008, I wrote this piece for the Liverpool Daily Post thanks to FOI – and I’d bet it’s the same situation across the country.

Who to ask?: The Information Commissioner for national figures – but any public body should hold this information

3. Murderers in our midsts

The Gloucestershire Echo reports that nine murderers have been released from prison to live in the county after parole boards agreed they should be set free. The key line in the article appears to be:  “In total, 19 offenders handed life sentences are being allowed to lead supervised lives in the community.” Presumably, the figures on where these supervised lives are being conducted should be held by the Ministry of Justice, which is quoted in the story.

Who to ask? The Ministry of Justice at first – but presumably the police or probation service should also know

4. Five-year-old expelled from school

The Ellesmere Port Pioneer found that a five year old was excluded from a school in the area for assault. Total exclusion numbers come up from time to time in government, but this story is proof of the extra information it is possible to get hold of under FOI – the age and “crime” are surely what makes this.

Who to ask? The local education authority – stipulating age of the youngest exclusion and reason for exclusion

5. Busy speed cameras

Speed cameras always make good copy, and this week the Brighton Argus reported on the location of the area’s most profitable speed camera. It was good to see these figures released – Lancashire County Council refused a similar request from me several years ago on the grounds it could interfere with police duties.

Who to ask: The local police or council responsible for the area’s road safety partnership – whoever runs the speed cameras, basically.

6. Very rich dentists

The London Evening Standard reports that dentists in Hounslow are earning up to £220k, which it says  is “twice the national average of £89,000.” Could a simple FOI to PCTs in other areas, asking how much the highest earning dentist is paid, reveal some interesting numbers?

Who to ask?  Local PCTs, which pay the salaries of dentists


7. The crimes police don’t tell you about

There was quite a storm in Northumberland a year ago when it emerged the police were staying quiet about some very serious crimes being committed. Police tend to say they only talk about crimes when they need public information, but several police press officers I know admit that they’re under pressure to keep some crimes quiet because of the need to hit targets around “the percentage of the public who feel safe.”  The South Wales Post this week reported than 5,820 crimes went unreported  by the police, including some quite serious ones. It summed it up like this:

Incidents not mentioned in routine press calls include two teenagers being arrested after an alleged attack in Llwynhendy which left two people in hospital with stab wounds, three police officers being allegedly attacked as they responded to a call in Dafen and an appeal for witnesses after a violent attack left a Llanelli man needing 69 stitches.

Meanwhile, police bulletins put out news of the theft of a circular saw from a shed in Llanelli and a green fishing coat, chair and fishing bait box stolen from a vehicle at Swiss Valley Reservoir.

The key appears to be asking for the number of crimes not reported to the Press – and asking for details in depth of serious crimes such as “injuries against the person”

Who to ask? The police

8. Swine Flu

At last, an FOI request relating to swine flu, and it’s from the specialist Chemist and Druggist magazine, which asked all PCTs if pharmacists would be in the first wave of people to get swine flu vaccines, in the same way GPs are. Pharmacists are, after all, on the front line when it comes to dealing with swine flu. Perhaps proving the fear that swine flu defences aren’t being co-ordinated, many PCTs give a different answer.

Who to ask? The local PCT  – but pretty much all of the answers are in the article

9.  The Regulation and Investatory Powers Act (RIPA) of 2000 request returns again!

I mentioned this one from London a couple of weeks ago, and if proof were needed that it’s a good ‘un, there here’s the story from the Coventry Telegraph.  The surveillance powers are available to public bodies under the Regulation and Investatory Powers Act (RIPA) of 2000. But Home Office information states the more intrusive techniques are supposed to be reserved only for serious crime and national security, including counter-terrorism.

To quote the CT: Without Freedom of Information laws, the public would have had no idea of the full extent to which the powers are being used for sometimes relatively trivial suspect offences.

Who to ask: The local council – they’ll have the information

10. Piers in Bournemouth

Ok, so this one is hard to replicate at first glance because it’s such a local issue. But by asking the council for details of discussions about its pier, the Bournemouth Echo has shown that it’s possible to get new information on something which a lot of people will talk about. Every area has a building/facility which prompts conversation – is it worth asking the council about any discussions it has had about what should become of it? The Echo’s success here would suggest the answer is yes!


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