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

Lying Parents

School place appeals stories are always popular and controversial, and in recent years many councils have vowed to get tough on those who lie to get their children into good schools. But how many parents have been found to be lying? The Gloucestershire Echo used FOI to find out.

Forced adoptions

A good example of knowing the phrases councils use from the Leicester Mercury, which reports on the 200 ‘forced adoptions’ carried out by the council, taking children from natural parents to new parents elsewhere.

The £7.83 compensation payout

The Southport Visiter reports this week on the sorts of things Sefton Council pays out for – and how much. Perhaps it’s the smaller payouts which are the most surprising, such as the £7.83 given to someone who claimed a council employee had damaged their car.

Police gun blunders on animals

Steve Dyson may not have liked it as a splash in the Metro, but the story about the number of times cops have fired guns to kill animals does demonstrate well how FOI can be used to get data which is useful to journalists.

Council spending in a newspaper

The authors of Ventnor Blog, in the Isle of Wight, have spoken in the past about their often difficult relationship with the local newspaper, the County Press. They’ve used FOI to find out how much is spent by the council in the local newspaper. It has risen in recent years and works out at £4k a week. Of course, it isn’t actually £4k a week – it’ll fluctuate during the year, I guess. This is an interesting one for me, as the resulting report, which doesn’t carry a comment from either the County Press or the council, leaves some questions which could do with answering – where else does it advertise, what sort of advertising are we talking about, how much is compulsary advertising and what assessment has been done to determine whether it is value for money? It’s now been suggested other councils receive FOIs asking similar questions – I’d suggest if this happens, the questions I’ve proposed need asking too.

Visits to a council’s website

Naughty goings on at Oldham Council this week, which responded to an FOI request by the hyperlocal site Saddleworth News by releasing part of the answer via press release to all the media. Saddleworth News asked for the stats for Oldham Council’s websites, including its tourism website. Oldham Council’s press release celebrated a 6.4% increase in traffic this year – is that good? – but the actual numbers, released via FOI, show fewer than 400 people a week logging on.

The cost of staging big events

Councils often fight tooth and nail for the right to host big events to ensure they attract more visitors. But what’s the cost? The Evening Gazette in Middlesbrough reports that through FOI, it has emerged Hartlepool Council spent £4million to attract and run a Tall Ships event – of which £800,000 hasn’t been covered by external sponsorship.

Chocolate if you turn your computer off

A random story in the Cotswold Journal about the £50 budget for chocolate allocated by a council for prizes to staff who turned their computer monitors off at night. It’s an energy saving drive, apparently. Whatever happened to being able to tell people to do something?

£36k spent on Second Life

Remember Second Life, the virtual reality other world which was going to take over our lives? Yes, I’d forgotten about it too. But Tameside blogger Liam Billington hadn’t forgotten Tameside Council’s excitement at buying a presence in Second Life. The cost, and what it was spent on, is revealed thanks to his FOI, which was reported in the Manchester Evening News, amongst others.

Fined for holding a piece of paper at the wheel

Police seem to have a broad canvas to work with when fining people for not being in control of their vehicle – remember the apple saga in Newcastle? The Coventry Telegraph has found out that holding a piece of paper at the wheel can also get you a fine too.

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

  1. First I’d like to apologies for not responding to your Tweet to VB. For the first time in years, we took a break last week. I hope it hasn’t left you feeling ignored.

    As it seems that you weren’t satisfied with VB’s handling of this story, I’ll take the time to respond to the points you raise in detail.

    I don’t think we’ve ever described our relationship with the County Press as an “often difficult relationship.” What we have said in the past is that we’ve heard that the fact that VB is breaking Island stories before them is a cause of frustration for them – but beyond that, they generally broadly ignore our existence. Don’t really see that a difficult relationship.

    It is surprising to see that you, as someone with a background in the media, couldn’t have fully read our article and links provided in it before writing about it, giving your views.

    Our County Press story is the first part of a series (the link to the overview piece is in the first paragraph fo the CP article), where we’re looking at IW Council spending in all areas of advertising, not just local newspapers.

    “it’ll fluctuate during the year, I guess” – Sure it fluctuates. We’ve cover this in our article (our highlights) – “In the last year of complete figures that we have (2008-09), the Isle of Wight council paid the County Press an average of over £4,000 every single week of the year. An amount totalling £215,808.34 for one year.”

    This is an interesting one for me, as the resulting report, which doesn’t carry a comment from either the County Press or the council …” – When you asked us about this in your Tweet, it did make me re-question why we hadn’t asked them for comment, but our report was an analysis of the figures that we’d received – they were cold facts, not a thesis.

    To be frank, I really don’t know what either of them could have added beyond, “errr … yes, we do pay/get paid that amount.”

    You say our report “leaves some questions which could do with answering.” I’ll answer the questions that you pose …

    1 – where else does it advertise?
    This is answered in the two articles we’ve written about it.

    The details of the County Press spend is the first in a series – we decided to start with the largest spend from the the total amount of advertising/media spend detailed in our opening piece.

    Under the same Total Spend heading, you’ll see that we also said, “so we’ll be publishing the detail of it in a number of articles over the coming weeks.”

    You’ll also find this reiterated at the bottom of our Country Press piece under the heading More Coming, “There’s more details from the ’spreadsheet of all knowledge’ on the way – just as soon as we get the next chunk compiled.”

    As we’ve said, it’s a case of when we’ve got time to analyse the next set of figures – we do like to be thorough you know and that takes time – the next media outlet will be detailed.

    2 – what sort of advertising are we talking about, how much is compulsary advertising?
    We’ve asked the Isle of Wight Council for the breakdown of this, and received the reply Friday afternoon. It wasn’t received in the initial FoI breakdown.

    You might have seen that a number of the 87 readers comments we’ve had on the story have wondered the same.

    3 – what assessment has been done to determine whether it is value for money?
    Really like the idea of this one – hadn’t occurred to us. We’ve got no idea how to go about doing this. Could you give some pointers?

    It’s now been suggested other councils receive FOIs asking similar questions – I’d suggest if this happens, the questions I’ve proposed need asking too.

    You’re right – to try and understand how the IW Council Ad spend related to the rest of the UK – high, average, low – we have launched our first investigation on the excellent Help me Investigate.

    You’ll see on the link, our reasons are clearly stated, “Be great to get a picture across the country to see if the Island is freakishly large, or if this quite the norm, wouldn’t it?”

    __Being on the inside
    Those on the inside of the Council/Local newspaper financial relationship (like those who work for newspaper groups, such as yourself) have probably known for years quite how much money flows from one to the other – everyone else, us included, had no idea quite how much of tax payers money was spent in this way.

    Sure, people can try and pick holes in any reporting, but isn’t the overriding positive that the public get to know about it?

    Simon Perry

    1. Hi Simon, thanks for taking the time to comment. I’m not sure I’d dream of suggesting I was or wasn’t satisfied with the handling of any journalist’s story. I did indeed read the full article, and many of the comments, before posting, but must have missed the points you raise here.

      I wasn’t seeking to criticise the story, I was trying to get across the sense that, for the first time, I was seeing an FOI which I had a professional knowledge of, something which, I suspect, many council officers also experience when they receive FOI requests relating to their area. It wasn’t meant to be a critique of your story. I wasn’t picking holes – if I was, I think I’d have been making statements rather than exploring questions – and I totally agree, it’s very much in the public interest for the information to be out in the open.

      In short, your article was particularly interesting to me as I had something approaching a detailed knowledge of some of the issues you explored in your FOI. I thought about making comments on your site, but wasn’t sure my interest in the issue would be the same as those people who were commenting.

      As for how much money flows between councils and newspapers, I don’t have that much knowledge. I guess working for an organisation doesn’t automatically mean you’re on the inside.

      I think comments from both the council and newspaper could have provided even more debate on this issue, but that’s just my opinion (something I’ve been taken to task for by Roy Greenslade recently) and like you say, I did tweet you about this.

      Finally – thanks for asking where your comment had got to. WordPress had sent it straight to spam, so I didn’t see it.

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