FOI Friday: 10 things we learnt this week thanks to the Freedom of Information Act

How much time the Army spends filming with Top Gear, the cost of hosting an Amercian secretary of state and coppers getting bonuses – there’s a right old mix of good stories generated by FOI for FOI Friday this week:

1. The cost of hosting Mrs Clinton

The Belfast News Letter obviously covered the recent visit by Hillary Clinton in some depth – it did, after all, make big headlines around the world. But was the cost of the visit to the police in  Belfast? Through FOI, they’ve established it was £174,000. Good value for money? Presumably, the authorities say yes, while many readers fed up of never getting an answer from the local cops might think differently.

2. Saving thousands by cutting mayors

The Chester Chronicle reports this week that reducing the number of councils in Cheshire – from the previous two tier system of borough and county councils to a couple of super unitary authorities – has netted some unusual savings: including the reducing the number of mayors. They got a brilliantly detailed response, including the fact photography costs have fallen from £3,000 to £500. I think there’s a wider issue for lots of areas here. In these tight times, can an area afford a decorative office such as the mayor? Or are they still so respected by the public that reducing their role would cause anger?

3. £18million handed out in police bonuses.

Did you know that police officers receive bonuses? Did you know that in parts of Yorkshire, that bonus bill is £18million over several years? No, neither did many in Sheffield until the Sheffield Star until they asked the question, and and the response appears to have to several follow ups.

4. The Leeds bin strike: Getting more from FOI

The Yorkshire Post has covered the Leeds bin strike, which has been rumbling on for quite some time, but how much has it cost in terms of bringing in private contractors? Using FOI, the YP reports the bill so far is £1million – but Leeds City Council suggests that is actually a saving on what they would have paid out in salaries to its own binmen. Either way, a good one to remember for future strike actions.

5. Cost-cutting drinks firm has its grants revealed

Local authorities and regeneration bodies are normally very quick to mention how their financial support lured a big firm, and many jobs to an area. They don’t mention how much support they’ve offered, and the companies involved certainly don’t mention that support if they cuts jobs further down the line. Jobs-cutting drinks giant Diageo, says the Press and Journal in Aberdeen,  got a £1million grant towards expansion of its Kilmarnock plant – which it is now to close with the loss of 700 jobs. Bosses got a further £1.6million towards the cost of a new bottling line at Leven in Fife, where Diageo plans to boost its operations. The disclosure came in response to a freedom of information request by Scottish Greens.

6. “cheque book government”

Just because every council seems to think it is ok to spend fortunes on hiring consultants for various reasons doesn’t mean journalists stop asking about value for money. The Liverpool Daily Post reports that, via FOI, it has been discovered that Liverpool Council spent £7m on consultants last year – that’d pay for around 230 staff.  It’s started a much-needed debate in Liverpool over value for money

Oh how the police must love our use of FOI to ask for facts and figures. But here’s a good one from the Burton Mail: Are women in Burton still as violent? The Mail asked the police for figures on the number of violent crimes committed by women in the town. Of course, stories about “feral young women” on nights out starting fights were all the rage a few years ago. It turns out women in Burton are committing fewer such crimes. The police aren’t sure what’s triggered this – you’d have thought the police might have been able to come up with a reason to claim credit for this positive step

8. Councils “losing” children

An interesting one for regional journalists to follow up – how many children in local authority care go missing? The Care Leavers Association asked councils to answer that question and the number it concluded with was: 145. Interestingly, Birmingham, one of the main centres in the UK for asylum children to be placed into local authority care, isn’t included.

9. Top Gear and the MoD

Here’s an FOI story which went everywhere after PA asked for details on how many days the Ministry of Defence allowed army staff to work on Top Gear. The issue of whether it is the right sort of thing to do at a time when there is talk of too few soldiers in combat zones etc is for another day – but this FOI request is a great example of opening up debate on an issue.

10. Extra payments for doctors to do small operations in GP surgeries

Family doctors are receiving additional payments of up to £100 per treatment, by offering extra services to patients, reports the Basilden Echo this week. How would patients feel if they knew doctors received incentives to act in a certain way?

* * *

*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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