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

Khyra Ishaq inquiry

When Birmingham City Council announced that six social workers involved in the case of Khyra Ishaq – the little girl who starved to death in her own home despite being known to social services – that several of the social workers involved had been sacked, it perhaps hoped it was the end of the story. What it failed to mention was that the six sacked had been referred to the General Social Care Council for investigation too, with another three still employed by the council also under investigation by the GSCC too. This was reported by the Birmingham Mail this morning after an FOI request submitted by a member of the public via Whatdotheyknow. This demonstrates the power of FOI when used by the public, especially by people who have a knowledge of the workings of an organisation which rivals that of those running the organisation.

Uncovering information from the National Archives

Information sought by a local history society handed the North Wales Daily Post with an interesting tale about how local tunnels had been lined up to store the country’s gold should the Russians invade. Lots of places have urban legends about how their area would have been affected if an invasion took place – the one in Chorley, where I first worked, involved secret train tracks under the Pennines – and maybe putting an FOI into the National Archives is one way to find out if it was true.

Complaints to the Environment Agency

An interesting one for anyone who is covering an ongoing story involving the Environment Agency. The Yorkshire Evening Post reports on an FOI request by a local councillor who asked how many complaints about bad smells had been made to the Environment Agency about a local farm – the answer was 450. Sadly, the EA hasn’t taken any action which has solved the problem yet.

Attacks on police officers

A simple, but effective FOI request from the Brighton Argus to Sussex Police asking for the number of attacks on police officers, and details of each, generated the following story:

A police officer is attacked almost every day while protecting the people of Sussex.

Officers have been punched, kicked, spat at and stabbed while on duty.

The police union said the majority of attacks were committed by drunken weekend revellers.

The latest figures released under the Freedom of Information Act show 322 officers were assaulted between April 1, 2009, and March 31 this year.

Young and Armed

The Hartlepool Mail takes a different take on the well-used trick of asking the police for data relating to youth crime – asking for the weapons young people have been caught carrying. The results might make you think twice about going out in Hartlepool at night:

A Freedom of Information request by the Mail found that youngsters have been arrested for carrying an array of different kinds of knives, baseball bats, a glass bottle, a cosh, iron bars and wooden sticks and poles, an axe, golf clubs and the dangerous chemical ammonia in a plastic bottle.

The cost of a coat of paint

There’s been a lot of talk this week about the pending release of much more government and local government spending data. While it’s a massive step forward, the devil will be in the detail – or rather, the level of detail which is released. In the meantime, FOI is a handy tool to use when trying to work out how much has been spent on projects, as the Stockport Express found this week when it reported on the £20k spent doing up the local council chief executive’s office after the new boss started recently.

Parking repeat offenders

FOIs about the streets which have the highest number of parking tickets are nothing new – but what about asking for details of the highest number of tickets issued to any one vehicle or person? That’s what the Cambridge News did:

A motorist who racked up at least £1,750 of parking fines in just 12 months is among a handful of drivers making a mockery of the rules in central Cambridge.

Library fines

Talking of fines, the Lincolnshire Echo reports this week on the amount of outstanding library fines in the county – some £18,0000.

Expensive press releases

Are FOI requests seeking the amount spent running press offices at councils more about journalists annoying the press team than anything else? Maybe, in some cases. But when you find a 191% increase in budget in five years, then it’s possible to argue that the money spent will be of interest to residents and readers as well, as the Herald Express has done in Devon.

Rotten teeth in children

Back to Brighton and the Argus’s story on the growing number of children needing operations for tooth decay, presumably caused by lack of access to dentists. The figures, from local hospitals, demonstrate the granular level of information they hold on operations – making hospitals a goldmine for public health stories.

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