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

1. Council trips abroad

At a time when budgets are being slashed, spending at local authorities will come under greater scrutiny than ever. FOI is a powerful tool in this respect, as the Press and Journal in Aberdeen showed this week when it revealed how one council had spent £400,000 on more than 100 trips abroad.

2. The impact of winter vomiting

Yes, on the hottest week of the year, the Herald Express in Devon gets details, via FOI, on how many days over the past five years hospital wards have been shut by winter vomiting. 700 days in total – more than two years.

3. Pauper’s funerals

An interesting take on the impact of the recession is revealed by the Nidderdale Herald this week – a rise in the number of pauper’s funerals taking place in the area.

4. University double standards

Returning to the theme of cuts, the Birmingham Post this week investigated the perks and salaries enjoyed by vice chancellors at universities which are currently making cuts left, right and centre. It’s the level of detail which makes the story:

The Post can reveal the vice chancellor of The University of Birmingham, Professor David Eastwood, has his own chauffeur, gardener and cleaner – while three others enjoy rent-free accommodation.

Another senior academic claimed almost £12,000 expenses on artwork and £1,800 on taxis.

Following a Freedom of Information Act request, University of Birmingham disclosed the vice chancellor earns more than £310,000 per year – more than double the £142,500 paid to David Cameron and submitted more than 2,000 expenses claims in 2009-10.

6. Council newspapers

A good example from the Western Mail of monitoring FOI requests on What Do You Know, picking up on requests sent to every council in the country for details on what they spent on council newspapers.

7. Never returned books

We’ve had FOIs about library fines and crimes in libraries – but this is the first time I’ve seen one asking for the number of books never returned, broken down by library. The Kirkintilloch Herald reports at least 3,000 a year aren’t returned.

8. The criminal choice of weapons

The Lincolnshire ECHO reports this week on the choice of weapons being used by criminals in attacks – including 28 involving hammers.

9. Outstanding parking tickets

To Edinburgh, when the Evening News wanted to find out how many parking tickets had gone unpaid in recent years. The answer: 55,000 – or around £3million-worth. No wonder the council now plans to clamp the worst offenders.

10. Arsons and fires

To finish this week, some interesting numbers from the pages of the Burnley Express, which set out to find out how many arsons there were in the area (insert your own joke about Burnley’s football season going up in flames in May, if you wish).

Using shocking figures obtained under the Freedom of Information Act, the Express can exclusively reveal that, since 2007, there have been 2,370 deliberate fires in houses, backyards, derelict buildings, bins and on grass and wasteland across Burnley and Padiham, with arson attacks accounting for almost three-quarters of all fire service call-outs.

Over the last three years crews have spent 60 days dealing with blazes started by arsonists, needing 2,872 pumps and costing an estimated 8,821 man hours – making crews unavailable to deal with a potentially fatal car crash or serious house fire.

Figures show most fires were started by yobs setting alight rubbish and waste inside bins and skips but they also reveal there were some incidents of homes being torched, although these were comparatively rare.

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