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

1. How safe are you from crime in hospital?

You’d like to think you were safe from crime in hospital, but the Liverpool Echo reports this week that that isn’t always the case.

The Echo asked hospital trusts for details of thefts reported in hospitals in the region:

SEVENTEEN sets of dentures, a nativity scene and surgical cameras worth more than £30,000 were among items lost or stolen in Merseyside’s hospitals last year.

Freedom of Information requests made by the ECHO revealed approximately £5,000 in cash belonging to patients was stolen, six wheelchairs were swiped and several laptops and TVs went walkabout.

The items were owned by patients, staff or the health trusts themselves and vanished during 2009.

The two surgical cameras – worth £32,500 – disappeared from Fazakerley hospital in June soon after they were delivered.

2. A very large mobile phone bill

The Nottingham Evening Post reports on the very large mobile phone bill which covers the county council in Nottinghamshire:

ALMOST 40% of Notts County Council employees – excluding school staff – have a mobile phone paid for by the taxpayer, new figures reveal.

Annual bills over the last three years have averaged more than £450,000.

The total number of staff using mobiles has also increased by 17% – from 4,182 in April 2007 to 4,885 in December 2009.

However, the council intends to reduce its mobile phone costs as part of wide ranging plans to save £86m over the next three years.

Interestingly, the paper also asked for the cost each year, which shows the price rising:

Details revealed under the Freedom of Information Act show the total bill – including tariffs and call charges – was £444,195 in 2007/08, £524,480 in 2008/09 and £395,000 from April to December 2009.

3.  More potholes

The Sunday Sun reports on the financial impact of potholes in the North.

Drivers and pedestrians have won more than £4.5m in damages from local authorities after falling victim to potholes and uneven surfaces during the past four years.

And councils have also had to fork out nearly £4m in legal and medical fees, a Sunday Sun investigation can reveal, meaning the total bill was over £8m

And that’s even before the current cold snap!

4. Burglary conviction success rate

The Sunderland Echo asked the police for the number of burglaries reported over the last three years, and the number solved. The answer was that just 10% were solved. A simple, but effective, FOI.

Out of 7,263 break-ins at Sunderland homes and businesses over the past three years, only 641 led to a charge or caution – a rate of 8.8 per cent.  For the whole of the Northumbria Force area the rate crept up to 10 per cent.

5.  Councillors who don’t pay attention

A success for the Herald Express paper in South Devon which turned to FOI to get its hands on a copy of a report produced by members of a council’s standards committee after they had monitored how a meeting of the full council worked.

Their findings highlighted issues over prayers at the beginning of meetings, the response to members of the public presenting petitions and claims that half of the councillors were not paying attention to a presentation by a representative of the Care Trust.

The findings have been obtained by the Herald Express following a Freedom of Information Act request.

6. Making criminals pay

FOI is always handy to use to find out how well headline-grabbing legislation is panning out. In the case of the Proceeds of Crime Act, a lot of the talk was around making criminals pay back what they had earnt illegally. So the Northern Echo sought to find out how that had played out in the North East:

Using Proceeds of Crime Act powers, detectives can pursue convicts for the rest of their lives for all money earned through crime.

Figures obtained by The Northern Echo under the Freedom of Information Act show that the region’s four forces collected £8,629,251 in the past three financial years.

7. Short trains

A good FOI from the Daily Telegraph which shows how much more valuable FOI can be if you know what information is held by a body. In this case, it’s the Department for Transport which was asked how many train services ran with fewer carriages than stipulated in the franchise. For anyone travelling with Northern, it’s probably no surprise to find out they were the worst.

8. MPs expenses: A new twist

The entire MPs expenses scandal came about thanks to the tireless work of FOI campaigner Heather Brooke, but now the Essex Echo has turned to FOI to try and stand up (or otherwise) the defence put forward by one MP over his mortgage arrangement:

PARLIAMENT has no record of an agreement MP John Baron said he reached with the fees office to remortgage his second home.

Mr Baron was last month ordered to pay back £8,021 interest claimed through expenses for the £34,035 personal loan on his second home, in Bramble Tye, Noak Bridge.

His defence was he had a written agreement from the fees office to break Parliamentary expenses rules by claiming the cash instead of claiming other expenses he says he incurred.

However, an Echo investigation has found the Commons has no record of any agreement.

The Echo asked the Commons under the Freedom of Information Act if it was “correct that John Baron was given approval to increase his mortgage by the fees office so he could use the money in lieu of other expense claims he did not make.”

It initially refused our request, but following an appeal agreed to answer.

The response stated: “We have now looked at the information which we hold and can inform you that we hold no information relating to any agreement that Mr Baron could increase his mortgage in 2004, so that he could use the money in lieu of other expense claims he did not make.”

It went on to add it did not mean conclusively the agreement was not made, but said: “simply that we have no information about such an agreement.”

9. Sick days by hospital staff

The Warrington Guardian reports that 66,000 work days were lost to sickness at the local hospital trust from a workforce of 3,900. The stats under FOI mean little for just one year, but when compared to previous years, also from FOI, the number of days lost is rising sharply.  A sign all is not well?

10. And a returning favourite: OAP criminals

The FOI about criminal pensioners seems to have taken off everywhere – and the latest location is Cumbria, where the News and Star in Carlisle reports 300 OAPs arrested for a variety of crimes

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