FOI Friday: 10 things discovered this week thanks to Freedom of Information

From 99-year-olds being suspected of burglaries to finding out what sort of crimes are committed in mental hospitals – a trawl through Google News for this week’s FOI-inspired stories made for quite grim reading at first. But there’s also the curious case of a council which underestimated the cost of bookmarks with the faces of councillors on, and the green-living environment minister in Wales who was a bit red-faced when FOI revealed her love of air travel…

Here are ten stories prompted by FOI requests…

1. Pensioner cime

We’ve touched on using FOI to find out about youth crime before – but what happens if you ask for details of crimes committed by OAPs. The Bristol Evening Post asked the local police force for the details of crimes committed by pensioners – and has produced a full list, along with details of some of the more surreal:

At one year short of a century, the 99-year-old was the oldest person to be arrested, for an allegation of house burglary and theft, without violence. He was closely followed by a 92-year-old arrested for giving a positive breath test.

Who to ask for information: The local police

2. Troublesome pubs

Crime stats are good for painting an overall picture, but the good stories come from more granular detail. The Crawley News used FOI to good effect to go beyond the town centre violence figures and actually ask which pubs were the most troublesome. All the data is presented in the story, which I can’ t help but think is crying out for a map too.

Who to ask: Local police

3. Mental health violence

Figures published by a national newspaper this week – reported here in the Nottingham Evening Post paint a bleak picture about violence in mental health hospitals. These figures can be obtained through other channels, but FOI can add extra detail – such as what the violent offences were:

Last year there were 7,666 violent incidents. These included a sexual and physical assault, criminal damage, racial and sexual harassment, injury during restraint of a patient and inappropriate behaviour.

4. How green are you really?

Reported in Walesonline.co.uk, Environment Minister Jane Davidson chalked up more than 14,000 air miles since taking up the post in 2007.  Swansea councillor Ioan Richard, opposed to the minister’s policies on wind farms, got the information by making a Freedom of Information Act request. It shows the 52-year-old minister, who advocates a green lifestyle and who often cycles to the Assembly, has made 13 separate flights on official business since May 2007.

Who to ask: Any FOI-covered body should be able to release travel details of its senior staff

5. Council caught telling porkies

Ever been told something by a c ouncil and not really believed what they said? FOI is a good way of holding them to account. That’s what the Halifax Courier did. It queried the cost of 900 bookmarks produced with the faces of councillors on them. 900 cardboard bookmarks featuring the pictures and policies of six leading councillors were produced to raise awareness of equality issues. When Kersten England, the former head of Calderdale Council’s safer and stronger communities department, defended their production, she said they had cost just £50. It turned out, under FOI, the figure was three times that. Small numbers maybe, but it’s a safe bet the council might not do that again!

6. Police compensation

“No Win, No Fee” compensation claims have long made news for local councils – but what about compensation claims against police? The Lowestoft Journal reports a total of 662 demands for restitution were made by the public and the constabulary’s employees between July 1, 2004 and August 5, 2009. The most costly category, according to Suffolk Police figures, was for physical injuries which led to the force handing over £166,355. Legal fees for the claimants’ solicitors were included in the total five-year payout package of £577,607. This was split between £415, 874 for the public’s claims and £161,733 for police employee demands.

7. Children on drugs

Thousands of children are being prescribed anti-depressants and “chemical cosh” drugs unnecessarily, the Conservatives said thanks to FOI. The figures show there were 420,000 prescriptions issued for ADHD medication to children under the age of 16 in 2007, meaning around 35,000 children were on the drugs in England. This is up by one third since 2005. Presumably, if the Tories have asked PCTs for these figures, they’ll have them to hand if you ask for them too. Note of caution: If your area is served by a childrens’ hospital, it might be worth approaching them as they may do the prescribing on behalf of the PCT.

Who to ask: PCTs or childrens’ hospitals

8. Bootleg fags

As so to the now weekly appearance for the Evening Post in Swansea which asked for a breakdown from the UK Border Agency on goods seized at airports, ferry terminals and so on. Clearly, this only works if you have one of these in your area – but an interesting use of FOI with a body which might otherwise be overlooked.

9. Struggling social workers

With the fall out from Baby P continuing, social workers continue to be in the spotlight. The Wigan Evening Post asked the local council how many social worker positions were vacant.  The figures showed 20 of the 145 Children and Young People Services (CYPS) social worker posts in Wigan are currently vacant. A good example of FOI being the start of a bigger story.

Who to ask: Local councils

10. And finally….

Alison Gow blogged this week about how repeatedly printing the nib “no crime today” in a paper led to the police being more open. The Salford Star appears to have taken a similar approach with FOI and the local council – going public on all the FOI requests which haven’t been answered. It’s a bit ranty, but can sense the anger the writers must be feeling.

* * *

*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. Please let me know if there is one you have seen

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