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

Getting hold of emails which contradict public statements, police forces trying to defend not investigating crimes and the university which bowed to the public interest test. It might nearly be Christmas but the regional media has turned up some great FOI stories this week. Here are 10 from a Google News search:

1. The emails which tell a different story

There’s been a bit of a barney going on in Preston recently over the decision to move the Football Museum from Deepdale, home of Preston North End, to the arty Urbis in Manchester, a venue which has little connection to football. This week, the Lancashire Evening Post successfully used FOI to get hold of documents and emails which showed that the Football Museum bosses, who had made many big promises about staying in Preston, had been holding discussions about moving for a very long time. This story will certainly add to the bitter taste felt in Preston about the decision to move, and the fact discussions were going for such a long time does place a questionmark over commitments made to Preston. The point here being: Always ask for the emails.

2. Middle class crime on the rise

An interesting take on a set of crime figures released under the Freedom of Information Act to the Beccles and Bungay Journal. It sought details on shoplifting figures and was told there had been a 400 case increase in the last year. That provided the basis of a story which sought expert opinion on the type of shoplifting, and which concluded that the recession was forcing desperate middle class types to commit shoplifting.

3. Paying a region’s top civil servant to commute to work

The Western Morning News turned to FOI to try and establish if the Government’s top representative in the South West was having his commuting costs covered by the taxpayer, given that he doesn’t live in the region. Turns out he is, some £8,000 in so-called “excess fares” which are paid to civil servants whose place of work changes. Worth bearing in mind if similar cases loom elsewhere.

4. How fast?

The Wrexham Leader asked North Wales Police for the highest speeds clocked by the force’s speed cameras on each level of speed limit. The result was that someone was clocked doing 118mph in a 50mph – and that turned out to be a copper on the way to a call out. So  no prosecution there then. But investigations continue into who was doing 79mph in a 40mph zone

5. Sherlock Holmes

The “how many crimes didn’t even get investigated?” FOI appeared in Cambridge this week. I mention it in this week’s list of 10 because the Cambridge News story demonstrates how having information under FOI can lead to some strange comments from people trying to justify apparently damaging numbers. In short, in Cambridgeshire:

Officers deemed 28,071 or 43 per cent of reported crimes as unsolvable. These included 244 reports of actual bodily harm, 2,929 reports of burglary, 3,573 reports of criminal damage to a vehicle, eight reports of sexual assault, 20 reports of arson endangering life, one report of the rape of a child under 13, 45 reports of robberies and 12 reports of wounding or carrying out an act endangering life.

To which the chief constable said:

“We are not Sherlock Homes where we can solve everything in an hour.
“But if there is absolutely no evidence then we really are clueless, because there are no clues, but nothing is ignored.”

Well, that’s all right then!

6. Smile, you’re on camera!

I think this is the first time we’ve included an FOI request from a commercial radio station. Heart FM in Milton Keynes asked Thames Valley Police how many images it had taken with its ANPR cameras – the ones which record number plates as cars enter their area.  The answer, for the year to date, is 8.9million photos, which is causing concern for groups like Liberty.

7. More information than the council cared to disclose

When Leicestershire County Council confirmed the future of a museum and country park was in doubt, it wasn’t keen to say what options it was looking at. A freedom of information request by the Leicester Mercury resulted in the paper receiving the papers which revealed the three options the council was looking at, one of which does involve closing the museum and putting the exhibits in storage.

8. The cash-strapped uni paying out £8million to a rugby union club

A victory for the Yorkshire Post this week when it managed to overturn a “commercial confidentiality” exemption which Leeds Met University had tried to impose. The Post had asked how much Met was paying Leeds Carnegie Rugby Union Club as part of the uni’s deal to withdraw it’s ownership stake in the club, which the paper says was controversially acquired in 2007. Turns out the uni is going to pay over £8million as part of its exit deal, at the very time higher education is stuck in a funding nightmare. The uni originally said it wouldn’t release the information due to commercial confidentiality, but subsequently it backed down after the YP insisted it was in the public interest to find out. A great result.

9. Priority care for veterans

One of the many promises the Government has made to veterans over the year is that they will get priority access to healthcare when its needed. In a good example of using FOI to check on a promise being kept (or otherwise), the Lib Dems asked PCTS and hospitals how well this was working. According to the BBC:

But it is far from clear that veterans who need NHS care are being given the priority they were promised. Using the Freedom of Information Act, the Liberal Democrats asked all acute and primary NHS trusts in England how many veterans had actually had priority treatment. According to a report on the BBC website:

Of the 170 NHS Acute Trusts in England, 94 of those who replied said they had no records on priority treatment or did not collect that information. Five said they were unaware of the scheme.

It was a similar story with Primary Care Trusts where of the 146 questioned, 84 replied with 67 saying they did not collect that information. Two trusts were unaware of the scheme and one said they were still awaiting guidance on the scheme from the Ministry of Defence.

Inconclusive, yet strangely conclusive at the same time.

10.  CCTV numbers rise

The Taxpayers’ Alliance, which uses FOI so well to drive its agenda, faces a contender to campaigning FOI group title (well, it would if such a title existed) from Big Brother Watch, which campaigns against over use of things like CCTV, rather than opposing the expansion of Davina McCall-driven shows. It asked councils to reveal the scale of their CCTV networks, and the numbers were quite startling. According to Google News, that FOI had triggered 95 stories in the UK media – although that number is probably much higher as we there are probably stories out there which don’t attribute the story to FOI

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