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

1. Top cops and Big Macs

The Edingburgh Evening News reports this week on the results of an FOI request submitted by a member of the public, which asked for copies of credit card expenses submitted by senior police officers in the Borders and Lothian police area – including trips to McDonald’s.

A summary of their claims between September and November last year, released following a freedom of information request by a member of the public, shows that officers spent more than £11,000 on credit cards issued by the force in three months.

Credit cards were given to 18 officers to pay for expenses while conducting investigations, or attending conferences or training.

This isn’t the first time I’ve mentioned FOI requests which have sought the details of credit card statements for accounts belonging to a public authority, but it appears to be worth mentioning again as it could be a very rich area.

2. What price a political stunt?

A particularly timely FOI result in the Western Morning News this week, which sought to use FOI to work out the actual cost of holding a meeting of the Cabinet in Exeter. The Cabinet Office said it paid around £51k – but the police say there are ‘too many budget codes’ to be able to say how much it cost them. Oddly, West Yorkshire Police could work it out when it was in their area.

3. What are people claiming for after the snow?

As sure as night follows day, compensation claims follow bad weather. The Yorkshire Evening Post has been quick off the mark to seek out what people have claimed for as a result of the recent bad weather. All sorts of details are given here.

4. Grubby restaurants

Some areas sign up to the Scores on the Doors scheme which means an FOI to find out details of the environmental health reports  isn’t needed. In other areas, the FOI still rules in this respect. The Hounslow Chronicle found that 100 eateries in Hounslow and the surrounding area are not up to scratch:

A freedom of information request submitted by the Chronicle revealed 126 premises in the Hounslow area received the lowest ratings of either 0 or 1 when inspected in the last year.

They clearly also asked for the names of those restaurants involved, plus the reports, which enabled them to add details such as:

Tasty Bite on Kingsley Road, Hounslow, was one of the places to get a no star rating in the last inspection.

The council visitor said “major effort” was required to bring the shop to required standards, and that “little or no appreciation of food safety was evident”.

5. Stop and search on youngsters

In recent months, we’ve seen FOIs about the number of children being arrested, but how about the number of children (and the youngest) being stopped and searched under police powers of which many are quite critical? The Carlisle News and Star put that question to Cumbria Police – the answer came back that more than 900 children had been stopped and searched – some under the age of 9.

6. The invisible councillors

The Peterlee Mail used FOI to ask for the attendance records of councillors at meetings. The results will create a bit of a political storm locally – around 13 councillors attended fewer than half of the meetings they were due to attend.

7. Trains running on time – or not

The Maidenhead Advertiser reports this week on the fact that just 16% of trains on one particular route actually ran on time. This information came from a Freedom of Information request. The story doesn’t actually say whether it came from the Department For Transport or from Network Rail – but either way, the fact such information is available could become very useful.

8. What happens when something gets ‘called in?’

Interesting stuff in the Wirral Globe this week about a plan to close a number of libraries. The original plan was ‘called in’ for review by the Department for Culture, Media and Sport. Wirral Council sought to keep its response to the DCMS draft report a secret – so the Wirral Globe went to the DCMS instead and got it from them. A good example of how if one public body is trying to keep something a secret, if there’s another public body involved, it’s worth going to them too.

9. What a company is worth to a town

The town in question here is Bognor Regis, the company is Butlins. The latter leases the holiday site from the former, and the Bognor Regis Observer story here is proof that just because a deal is commercial doesn’t mean it’s off limits. The council receiving £2.5m for a 125-year lease is clearly in the public interest, while the strings attached have also prompted a bit of a row.

10. The cost of temporary teachers

Getting information about teachers and schools can be a bit of a grey area. Sometimes authorities will insist the information isn’t held centrally. If other authorities turn out to be holding it centrally, it’s a safe bet you’re being had – there’s normally a reason why it’s held centrally and that’s because they need the information for government targets. One such story appears in the Runcorn and Widnes Weekly News this week – the cost of hiring temporary teachers.

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