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

Art for arts sake?

Forget cash in the attic – there’s stuff worth real money being tucked away by local councils in the North East. The Northern Echo reports that councils in the region own £75million worth of art – much of it tucked away in storage. At a time when costs are being cut, this FOI has shone a light onto a potentially rich source of income and debate. Perhaps worringly, one council, Northumberland, doesn’t know how much its art is worth.

Naughty coppers

The Nottingham Evening Post has discovered how many police officers are currently under investigation, and for what, after putting in an FOI:

SIX Notts police officers, one Special Constable and eight police staff were suspended from duty up to December 31 last year, according to new figures released to Notts Police Authority’s professional standards committee.

Four of the police officers have been suspended for between three and six months, one between six and 12 months, and one over a year.

One member of police staff has been suspended for over a year.

A further 11 police officers are on restricted duties pending possible suspensions or the completion of a disciplinary investigation.

An Freedom of Information Act application by the Post revealed four of the police officer suspensions are connected to “Honesty and Integrity” issues, two are over “Discreditable Conduct” and one is about allegedly failing to fulfil “Duties and Responsibilities”.

What’s been smuggled into prisons?

Here’s one that’s just waiting to be repeated by any reporter who has a prison on their patch: What weapons have been seized from prisoners or in prisons? The results from an FOI in Edinburgh made for a great Evening News story:
HOMEMADE grappling hooks for ambitious escape attempts and weapons made out of toothbrushes and cutlery are among a soaring number of dangerous items confiscated from Lothian prisoners.

It was revealed today that an average of one weapon is seized in either Saughton or Addiewell prisons every two days, and there has been an increase in the number of drug finds and mobile phones confiscated from inmates.

Crumbling GP surgeries

Health service magazine Pulse once again has an FOI which will be of interest to health reporters up and down the country: How many GP surgeries in PCT areas don’t, currently, meet minimum standards?

A Pulse investigation finds as many as one practice in seven is in premises judged by PCTs to be ‘below minimum standard’, including every surgery in some parts of London, where as many as a third are ‘dangerously below standard’.

Almost half the PCTs surveyed had at least one substandard premises. Overall, PCTs classed 14% of premises substandard, a figure the GPC described as ‘desperate’, which is almost exactly the same as in the last survey in 2006.

Yet PCTs across the country are cancelling upgrades or attaching conditions before they will release funding, as a result of the ‘biggest financial challenge the NHS has ever faced’.

A great example of knowing what to ask for, and knowing what information is being held.

Council sick leave

At a time when everyone in the public sector is looking at ways to save money, asking about sick leave under FOI seems quite pertinent. That’s what the Crawley Observer did, and the results were:

MORE than ten per cent of Crawley council workers have taken prolonged sick leave in the past two years, an Observer investigation has revealed.

In a Freedom of Information request sent to Crawley Borough Council, it has been revealed that 81 of the council’s 800 strong work force, have been on sick leave for two weeks or more from January 2008 until January 2010.

The council said 81 of the employees had all been paid during their period of sickness.

(That’s all you’ll find on the website, by the way, as they do that annoying thing of telling you to buy the paper if you want to know more).

The £1million cost of an unsolved murder – so far

The Warrington Guardian managed to get Cheshire Police – which I’ve always found to be very accommodating about FOIs – to reveal the cost of the investigation into the murder of Shafilea Ahmed, a 17-year-old whose decomposed body was found in Kendal, in February 2004 – five months after she went missing from her home in Great Sankey. The answer is £1million by the way and appears to have triggered a good chat with the police about what they’re doing on the case now. One to remember if another police force says no to that information.

Cashing in the chips

When I was a reporter in Blackburn, a calls shift wasn’t complete until the fire service had mentioned a chip fire somewhere. I suspects it’s bread and butter fare for any daily newspaper reporter. But what’s the cost of these fires which often only warrant a par or two in print? In Lincolnshire, the answer is £14k a year, for 45 fires in a year.

Sticking with the Lincolnshire Echo, it reports this week on the number of accidents involving police cars, and also asked for the associated costs, if the car was a write off and who was deemed to be at fault:

Police have forked out over half a million pounds after their cars were involved in more than 760 crashes in Lincolnshire in three years.

New figures showing police drivers have been to blame for 349 of the 764 collisions have raised questions about driving standards at the force.

The statistics show hundreds of thousands of pounds have been paid in repairs, compensation and legal costs – while a string of cars have been written off.

I found this story on Thursday. It still tells me to buy Monday’s paper (now four days old) to get the full story. Come on!

Fuel and metal thefts

Another week and another different type of crime comes under FOI scrutiny. This time it’s the BBC in North Wales, looking at the rise in the number of fuel thefts and thefts of metal grids and the like. It’s a topical issue which probably reflects the current economic climate. (I’m tempted to say it’s good to see the local BBC in North Wales digging up their stories instead of reporting on an error made by a local newspaper, like their colleagues in the North West, but that would, of course, be a cheap shot!)

More than £10m worth of metal was recorded stolen in 2008/09, almost double the value of the previous year.

Fuel valued at £3.7m was stolen in 224 incidents over the same 12 months, compared to £875,000 in 2007/08.

Health and Safety investigation

An interesting use of FOI by the Market Rasen Mail, which reports the number of health and safety improvement notices issued by the Health and Safety Executive to a local company. One for reporters to remember if they have a firm which causes controversy in an area, or maybe it’s worth FOIing the number of issue notices issued in a a particular area?

One comment

  1. Hi David

    I love FOI Friday. It is a great source of ideas and inspiration. I have always thought that there was a case for reporters sharing successful ideas for FOI requests, particular when they are working for different regional papers spread across the country. Clearly you got there first.

    I have know read through the archive and I’m looking forward to more. Keep it up! Have you thought about putting together a top ten stories generated from FOI hit list?

    Cheers

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