FOI Friday: Uni expenses, shoplifting, driving tests and a speed camera success story

1. The expenses of university top bods

With £9,000 a year tuition fees very likely for many students starting university, there’s probably never been a better time to stick the finances of universities under the FOI microscope. The Sunday Sun has done just that, asking for the expenses of senior officials at universities in its areas:

UNIVERSITY bosses notched up more than £130,000 on credit cards and expenses in two years….on five-star hotels, posh restaurants and supermarket shopping.

A former Teesside University Deputy Vice Chancellor put £116 on the plastic during a trip to a Singapore boozer.

And Northumbria pro-vice chancellor, Professor Paul Croney, claimed for a £652 bill at a Hong Kong bar and restaurant.

The Sunday Sun asked five of the North’s universities – Northumbria, Newcastle, Durham, Teesside and Sunderland – to show us bills submitted by their Pro-Vice Chancellors and Deputy Vice Chancellors over the last two years, a request made under the Freedom of Information Act.

The figure – £132,494 spent by the 25 executives whose UK average salary tops £60,000 – has emerged in the week that Newcastle University announced they are planning to join Durham University by charging £9,000 tuition fees.

Can such expenses be tolerated when they are effectively been funded by higher tuition fees?  Some of the best information lies in the smallest details:

More than half of that total  [at Durham] covered a £44,225 ‘Travel Card’ bill for Professor Seth Kunin in the Arts and Humanities department.

And in Teesside – which seems to tell its top staff to buy food for events from supermarkets and claim it back – there was this gem:

Professor Cliff Allan – who has since left for another university – spent £12,509 in the two-years, staying at several five-star hotels in India and China, including The Imperial in New Delhi. He also spent £60.56 on his Barclaycard in Housams 1985 Ltd, a Middlesbrough DIY store – which the university said relates to three “minor items of office equipment”.

During a visit to Singapore in November 2009 he also spent £116.33 in the Cocoon Bar & Supperclub.

There’s a growing rumbling in university circles that universities should be exempt from FOI because they won’t be relying on the public purse directly in years to come. I think we all know that’s more than a little misleading.

2. Speed camera success

To Crawley [and the Observer] we go for an old favourite – the speed camera FOI. I mention it here because Sussex Police has bucked a trend among police forces and revealed the location of the busiest speed camera – ie the one issuing the most tickets – and the number of tickets issued. Other police forces have said no in the past for various reasons, my favourite being the fear that such information could lead to vandalism. For anyone asking this question again, referring to Sussex in the FOI request might be a good idea.

3. Council fat cats – or not

The attacks against council big wigs go on – and the Chorley Guardian spotted one FOI-based national story which showed that four of their council’s officials, between them, earned £500,000. I mention this story here because it’s a good example of taking someone else’s FOI story further, and getting more out of it. In this case, the Guardian got the chief executive,  Donna Hall, to open up her pay package to the paper which provided much more context.

4. Driven around the bend

Good stuff from the Coventry Telegraph which used FOI to find out various statistics from the Driving Standards Agency about driving tests in the Coventry area – including someone who had 25 attempts before passing!

5. Spending on forensics

Spending on forensics has fallen sharply in Devon and Cornwall over the last two years, according to figures obtained by the Western Morning News. Expenditure fell by 21.5 per cent to £1.97 million in 2009/10, the latest year for which full figures are available. Proof that police forces don’t rely on forensics quite as much as the TV dramas suggest?

6. What police helicopters are used for

The Warrington Guardian nosed its FOI-based story about the Cheshire Police helicopter on how much it had cost over three months to fly – £500,000. But I think the more interesting story in here is what it has been used for:

Jobs that the Cheshire chopper has been sent out to in the past three months have included finding a ‘high risk missing man’ in Croft, a search for a stolen car in the Burtonwood area after a pursuit along the M62 and a search for a man who ‘had assaulted a man with a bottle’ in Warrington.

7. Shoplifting in Cardiff

The Guardian’s local site for Cardiff reports on figures obtained from South Wales Police for shoplifting in Cardiff. Interesting figures include the ratio of crimes to arrests – around 3,000 compared to 8,000 – suggesting that shoplifters are quite good at getting away with it. Whatdotheyknow was used by Hannah Waldram to get the information – thus providing a good template for others to try their hand elsewhere.

8. Petrol station drive offs

The Guardian’s shoplifting FOI also asked about petrol station drive offs, something the Banbury Cake also reported on this week, revealing that drive offs had risen year on year. No surprise there – but maybe a good example of where data journalism could play a part. Comparing rises in drive offs to the rise in other factors, such as the annual price of a litre, could be interesting.

9. Rats on the loose

Returning to Cardiff, the YourCardiff site, part of Walesonline, used FOI to ask Cardiff Council how many times the rat catcher was called out. I know, we’ve seen the total number of rat cases before – but what I like about this FOI is that it breaks down the number of cases by month. March is the worst month, by the way .

10. The fall of neo-natal baby unit support

Here’s a good example of why FOI should be more than just about asking for numbers. The Western Mail was able to reveal how high-dependency cots for newborns were being kept out of action due to staff shortages – at a time when the birthrate is rising. The Mail obtained the information after asking for reports relating to neo-natal provision in Wales.

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