FOI Friday: Council bosses and their expenses, dirty hospitals, police spying on neighbours and the problems with paracetamol

The front page of the East Anglian Daily Times

The front page of the East Anglian Daily Times

1. Hotel Stays

I wonder if Andrea Hall, the chief executive of Suffolk County Council, agrees with Tony Blair that FOI was a big mistake. Thanks to FOI, we already know £12,000 was spenting on coaching sessions for her, not to mention the essential spending on posh profile pictures of her. In its latest FOI about the chief executive, the EADT reports on how the council paid for her to spend nights in posh Suffolk hotels on three occasions.

It turns out that the nights, which she claimed back on expenses until she was told she shouldn’t, were deemed necessary because she had early meetings the next day or dinners on the night of the stays – something which wouldn’t be such a problem if she lived close to work, or indeed in the same county. A good example of how FOI combined with other knowledge can take a story a long way.

But it also reveals another opportunity: What are council big wigs putting on their expenses?

2. Hospital hygiene errors

It’s fair to assume that a hospital kitchen would convene with food hygiene standards. But not in parts of South Wales, where the South Wales Evening Post discovered that Morriston Hospital had just one star out of a possible five. The paper then sought to find out why the rating was so low – FOI led to the release of the inspection reports, which make grim reading.

3. Police spying on neighbours

The Lancashire Telegraph revealed how several police officers have been disciplined for using police computers – and the databases they hold – to run searches on neighbours, family and the local area:

In one allegation, which is currently being investigated by the Professional Standards Department, a PC in eastern division covering Blackburn with Darwen, Hyndburn and the Ribble Valley, misused the Sleuth system to run criminal checks on neighbours and schools near his home.

A Pennine PC covering Burnley, Pendle and Rossendale was given a written warning for conducting 53 Sleuth searches without an ‘obvious policing purpose’ last year.

In total, there have been 12 allegations of breaches of data protection against East Lancashire officers and a further nine against East Lancashire staff since 2008. In total for the whole force, there have been 30 against officers and 54 against staff in the last three years.

4. Policing the playground

Now that we’ve established it is possible to run police database searches for schools, this FOI shouldn’t comes as too much of a surprise. Bedfordtoday.co.uk reports on the reports of crime at every school in the area. The story points out that the crimes didn’t necessarily involve children at the school, but took place at the school. Presumably, this information should be quite easy to extract.

5. School insurance

And sticking with schools and crimes, the Crosby Herald used FOI to reveal the insurance claims schools have made as a result of break ins, thefts and arson attacks. The information is held centrally at some councils because they provide authority-wide insurance schemes.

6. Sex offences involving the under 16s

Thisisgloucestershire reports the number of sexual offences against under 16s after receiving the information under the Freedom of Information Act. It also reveals just a third of cases lead to court action. Knowing exactly what the offences were would potentially have added more depth to the story.

7. The costly cost cutter

Like many councils, Kirklees Council has hired external consultants to help it work out how to save money. (Hint – stop wasting time letting the council leader meddle with FOI requests). The Huddersfield Examiner used FOI to find out how much had been spent on their consultant, a woman called Julie Alderson. Her expenses came in at £4,860 in just four months, on top of around £40k in salary.

The expenses included an apartment in Huddersfield, bills for that apartment, plus mileage from Tyneside. Oh, and she charged for the cost of going through the Tyne Tunnel too. Again, another good example of the stories within expenses.

8. Painkiller peril

A good, different take on ‘how many children were admitted to hospital for x’  FOI request theme from the Express and Echo in Exeter. They asked for the number of admissions for overdoses on paracetamol. There were 53 youngsters treated in the local hospitals for that in the last year.

9. Politics and FOI

There’s something which sits uncomfortably with me when I read about politicians using FOI. Not because they use it, but because they have to use it. Even though Yvette Cooper, the shadow home secretary is in opposition, surely she shouldn’t have to use FOI to get answers from police forces? That said, it’s a good example of getting answers when you know your subject – she was able to ask how many police forces were using an obscure regulation which allows forces to force officers with more than 30 years service into retirement.

10. Evaluating housing market renewal

Ending again with the impact of government cuts, here’s an interesting use by the Stoke Sentinel. Housing Market Renewal schemes were launched by the government around six years ago to pump millions into areas where the housing market had effectively collapsed. That involved a lot of compulsary purchase orders and demolitions, with promises of new housing to come. But now the money has dried up due to cuts. FOI helped the Sentinel reveal just what the result is now.

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