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

Another interesting week on the FOI front. While the climate change row continues – triggered by an FOI investigation – continues to dominate the national headlines, locally there have been some fascinating stories. They include the length of times bodies have remained unclaimed in hospital mortuaries, dirty scalpels in hospitals, public bodies paying to go to the party conferences, the demise of UFO investigations and porn found on school computers…

1. Body unclaimed in a mortuary for 10 years

A body has lain unclaimed in a council morgue for the past 10 years, a Yorkshire Post investigation has revealed after it used the freedom of information act to ask local hospitals for information. Airedale General Hospital at Keighley said it had also held a body for 12 months in recent years at the request of the police due to an ongoing murder inquiry. Sheffield City Council, said it kept the body of “a wealthy man” for 18 months during a will dispute. Fascinating stuff which asks a lot of questions.

2. Operations halted after filthy scalpels found

Sticking with hospitals, More than 300 surgical instruments have been returned to NHS hospitals dirty or broken by private contractors hired to sterilise them, The Glasgow Evening Times reported after using FOI. The instruments, including scalpels, forceps and microscopes, have had to be returned by NHS Lanarkshire over the past year because they were unsterile or damaged, which has led to claims that operations are being cancelled because of shortages of essential equipment.

3. Racially abusive civil servant keeps job

Here’s a very interesting one. A blogger [I was unable to work out who, if you know, please let me know] was aware that a senior diplomat convicted of racially aggravated harassment for a foul-mouthed anti-Israeli rant in a gym had been given a new role at the Foreign Office and wanted details, so turned to FOI. The Jewish Chronicle reports Rowan Laxton, 48, the then head of the South Asia desk at the FO, was exercising in a gym when saw a television report during Israel’s action in Gaza and shouted “f—— Israelis, f—— Jews” and was subsequently prosecuted. I’d have assumed that personal information get-outs would have been used by the Foreign Office to answer questions about what happened to Mr Laxton inside the FO, but apparently not, because they confirmed what action had been taken against him.

4. How much to exhibit at the party conference?

The Wolverhampton Express and Star reports this week that the public body that oversees public transport in the West Midlands, Centro,  spent £13,942 of taxpayers’ money promoting itself at the Tory party conference. An interesting use of funds or a way of courting the likely new government? Either way, it’s another interesting find from the Taxpayers’ Alliance.

5. Council cash spent on councillors’ meals

This sort of story appears in various guises but I’ve included it here as another good example of a politician using it to get information, and then the newspaper involved applying the context. At a time when the rest of us are suffering a recession, hospitality costs rising at Worthing Council won’t go down well.

6. Residents use FOI for planning application information

Rumours regularly abound about what might happen to land, and possible planning applications. Residents in Canterbury got straight to the point by asking the council for details of any discussions with a university about one area of land. The council confirmed talks had taken place – a good reference point for journalists hitting walls of silence when pursuing such issues?

7. Dangerous dogs

In the week a four-year-old was killed in Liverpool by an illegal dog, the Daily Post in North Wales reports of 70 such attacks in North Wales in three years. Every parents’ nightmare – and information which can hopefully prompt more action for tougher laws?

8. UFOs

Seriously, I’ve included this not just because UFOs can drive traffic, even though it’s pointless traffic. But amidst all the “please can I have details of xxxx UFO sightings in XXXXX” requests, came thisone reported in Defence Management: that the UFO investigation service has been closed down. Now we’ll never know if the truth is out there.

9. School pupils caught with porn on school computers

Schools are notoriously reluctant to release this information – and for good reason normally. So the Galloway News used FOI to find out which schools had suspended or disciplined pupils for find the wrong content online. I think this request went to the local council.

10. Not enough doctors

Clever use of FOI by the Conservative Party this week. It sought to prove that there was a doctor shortage in casualty departments across the UK.  They did this by submitting FOI  requests to hospitals to ascertain the number of staff in A&E departments during two sample dates in March, one during the week and one at the weekend, showed that “almost one in three hospitals did not have a doctor of sufficient seniority and experience in the hospital on one of the sample nights.” So FOI becomes a representative sample. A clever use.


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