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

1. Schooling ‘on the cheap’

Schools are bound by the Freedom of Information Act,  but have 40 days to reply. That can make FOI-ing schools a bit of a challenge, but the results can pay off, as demonstrated by the Norwich Evening News this week. It found that high schools in Norwich are employing a growing army of unqualified staff to look after lessons.

Under an agreement on the use of  ‘cover supervisors’ in schools, the supervisors are only supposed to hand out lesson plans prepared by teachers, and to maintain order. They should also not take classes for more than three consecutive days. But asking questions of schools under FOI, the News found 16 admitted they had used the staff in such a way in 2008/9 – with a total of 143 occasions where the three-day limit was passed. Six said they could not access the information and 11 failed to answer the request.

2. The North East rail fiasco

The Journal reported on the nationalisation of the East Coast mainline this week. The Tories used FOI to get hold of correspondence between National Express, the operator, and the Government about its financial plight. The Tories suggest the documents show the government was aware of financial problems long before they became public. It looks as though FOI may be a key way of getting info out of government for the opposition parties ahead of a general election – although it does beg the question as to why politicians have to resort to FOI at all.

3. Run down universities

The Edinburgh Evening News reports on an FOI request to the Higher Education Funding Council for England, which  compiled a database on the state of buildings owned by universities. At one Edinburgh university, surveyors judged more than 40 per cent of the university’s lecture theatres, libraries and other non-residential buildings as “inoperable” and “posing a serious risk of major failure and breakdown”.

4. Is home schooling on the rise?

The Reading Post reports on the rise of home schooling in the area in a report made possible by the FOI Act.

Between September 2008 and July 2009, 58 pupils of compulsory school age in Reading were taught out of the classroom, compared to 31 pupils between September 2004 and July 2005, figures obtained under the Freedom of Information Act showed.

5. Police investigations

The Sunderland Echo reports this week on the case of a Sunderland police officer who resigned after he was caught leaking secret information – and taking free food and hotel accommodation.

FOI was used to get some of the details of the alleged offences, which didn’t end up in court due to people not wanting to give evidence.

A Freedom of Information request has also revealed Pc Butler was given “preferential treatment” in pubs, as well as free food and accommodation.

It is understood the hospitality was given to him by a man who runs licensed premises in the city.

A good example of getting hold of details of alleged offences from police once the investigation is complete?

6. Parking shortages

Parking is an issue which always gets readers going, so the Plymouth Herald had a good tale when a Lib Dem candidate used FOI to find out the ratio of parking permits issued to parking spaces available.

DRIVERS in some parts of Plymouth face fierce competition for parking spaces – even though they have bought parking permits.

The city council is selling more residents’ permits than there are spaces in almost half of its controlled parking zones, according to research by Liberal Democrat parliamentary candidate Stuart Bonar.

7. Ignoring safety warnings in hospitals

Action Against Medical Accidents demonstrated the value of knowing the information held by public bodies this week when it revealed the number of times hospitals everywhere had ignored safety advice.

Safety alerts are issued by the NHS National Patient Safety Agency and recommend steps that can be taken to tackle threats to patients which have been flagged up by repeated deaths or injuries. The Department of Health records whether action is taken.

The Coventry Telegraph laid claim to the hospital with the most advice ignored

COVENTRY’S super-hospital is putting patients’ lives at needless risk by failing to implement NHS safety orders, new research claims.

University Hospital and Rugby’s Hospital of St Cross failed to act on 37 out of 53 safety alerts before their deadlines, between 2002 and 2009.

8. More social media abuse

Remember the officers at the Ministry of Defence disciplined for leaking secrets on Facebook? The FOI trail continued this week to the Ministry of Justice and the Met, as reported by computing.co.uk:

More than 70 staff at two of Britain’s leading law enforcement agencies have been disciplined for misusing the internet and social networking web sites over the past 18 months, according to official figures released today.

The Ministry of Justice (MoJ) has sacked four officials and issued final warnings to three others for misusing social networking sites.

And Scotland Yard has launched disciplinary proceedings against 28 police officers for breaching rules on social networking sites.

9. A one-pupil crime wave

A victory for the Dumfries and Galloway Standard this week. In December, the paper received a report from the council on violence in classrooms, which revealed many incidents were committed by just one child. However, the report did not say where the child went to school. This week, thanks to FOI, the paper was able to report which area the child went to school in, at least giving a more localised context to the story. Could other papers ask for the largest number of assaults to be committed by one pupil?

10. A returning favourite… The wrong type of fuel

Before Christmas, the Evening Standard reported on how cops in London often put the wrong fuel in their patrol cars. The Coventry Telegraph appears to have shown it happens elsewhere too. It’s FOI to Warwickshire Police shows that seven times last year, cop cars were taken off the road thanks to fuel fools.

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