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

A council with 100,000 unsuitable images on its computers, a police force revealing it doesn’t investigate almost a quarter of reported crimes and the rising cost of parking fines – here are 10 stories made possible this week thanks to the Freedom of Information Act.

1. Buying British

Councils up and down the country are tasked with promoting their local economies, and they often nick ideas from each other – hence why nearly every town seems to have a German Christmas market (started in Birmingham, I think) or a big wheel (started in Manchester, again, I think). But how far do councils go to ensure they are supporting the local economy through their purchases? The Countryside Alliance used FOI to ask councils if they had a formal policy in place to ensure they tried to buy locally – the answer was that 74% did not.

2. Naughty images on council computers

Sticking with councils for the time being,  The Nottingham Evening Post turned up an interesting discovery when it asked the local council how many unsuitable images had been found on its computer. The report states that the council has a software package it uses to track such things – is it possible other councils do the same? Is it worth asking any council how many instances of unsuitable images or unsuitable content being accessed has been reported in the last year? Interestingly, the NEP report says the council considered abandoning its probe into dodgy photographs when it saw the scale of the problem. That’ll solve it, then!

3. Parking fines

If there was an award for effective use of FOI by a campaigning body, then the Taxpayers Alliance would surely win it. This week, it released information on how much councils make from parking fines. Not surprisingly, the numbers are going up. Councils have their own reasons for this, but surely strict parking rules are as good a reason as any for shoppers to head straight for the nearest free-to-park out-of-town complex?

4.Repairs, repairs, repairs

To North Wales and the North Wales Weekly News, which used FOI to find out how much it had cost to repair a bridge which drivers kept, er, driving into. A local story in every sense,  it’s a good example of the sort of the council information which we often don’t think about asking for – every area must have something the council has to keep repairing?

5. Donny day ahead of gay pride

A good old-fashioned “documents released” story has proved what a lot of people in Doncaster were suspecting, it seems. They have a directly-elected mayor there and he’s planning a Doncaster Day of celebrations – at the expense of funding several other festivals. I suspect this is a real talker in the town, and one made possible through FOI. Perhaps this is another good example of getting evidence via FOI?

6. Overstretched ambulance services

WalesOnline reports the findings of a Welsh Assembly Member who turned to FOI after becoming convinced an ambulance shortage was resulting in police taking injured and sick people to hospital. Turns out she was right.

7. A cautionary tale

The other week, Panorama led with the over-use of cautions for serious crimes. Great national numbers, but local FOIs on the same issue are starting to bring in results. The South Wales Evening Post is one such example, reporting this week that arsonists and violent offenders are among those being let off with a “slap on the wrists.”

8. Screening out crimes

Perhaps worse than a suspected criminal receiving a caution, from the victim’s point of view at least, would be the police not investigating at all. The Bournemouth Echo reports that 22% of all reported crimes are “screened out” in Dorset, which means they aren’t investigated. Presumably a similar policy is in place across the country?

9. Metal Theft

An different sort of crime is reported by the Cambridge News thanks to FOI. It reports that figures were obtained through the act which set out just how big a problem metal theft had become – with schools, churches, nurseries and clinics among the places reporting that metal had been stolen. A recessionary crime?

10. Rowdy kids on buses

This one’s a bit different, from the Dundee Evening Telegraph. It found out that kids chucked off school buses for rowdiness were now being taxied home from school at the council’s expense. The council had refused to answer questions about the incident, until the “Tele” put in an FOI about the incident. Answers followed shortly after. So while not a case of information being released through Freedom of Information, it is a case of information becoming available because of FOI.

* * *

*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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