FOI Friday: Overdue books, bedding plants, baby scans and trading standards

1. The most overdue books in town

The devil, they say, is in the detail. And the Accrington Observer got plenty of detail back from its FOI request into overdue books at Accrington Library. Not only did they find out the number of books which are overdue, and the total amount owing in fines, but they also got details of the most overdue book at each library in the area. The most overdue book in the borough is a book called Balloon, which should have been returned in 2004. That means £300 of fines are attached to that book – although the cap on fees is just £6.

2. The cost of plants

Here’s one which will probably have critics of FOI claiming its proof of people abusing the act, but to me it’s just another example of councils being held to account. The Evening Chronicle in Newcastle used FOI to find out how much councils were spending on bedding plants. The total is around £500,000. It’s a good example of FOI being used to prompt a debate. On one hand, nice flower beds could be seen as a luxury councils can’t afford, but on the other, they’ll be the things people complain about if axed.

3. The cost of that first baby photo

Accusations flying of ‘stealth taxes’ on expectant mums in Birmingham after an FOI request revealed that the city’s main birthing hospital is making more than £50,000 a year from selling pictures of pregnency scans to happy (and I would imagine, some not so happy) parents-to-be. The £6-a-photo charge is much higher than at other hospitals.

4. Crimes on Facebook

With social media under scrutiny for the role it did (or didn’t) play in riots, maybe it’s worth revisiting the FOI about the number of crimes reported which referred to Twitter, or Facebook. In fact, throwing Blackberry Messenger in there might be a good idea. The Western Mail asked about Facebook – and also for a breakdown of the crimes which referred to Facebook:

In total, officers working for South Wales Police recorded 278 crimes where Facebook has been mentioned during the investigation between 2008 and 2010. And police also recorded another 102 incidents in the first four months of 2011.

The most common crime involved is violence against the person – these accounted for 264 of the 380 crime report mentions.

According to the data Facebook also played a part in 30 sexual offences, 35 cases of criminal damage, 28 thefts and even one instance of drug trafficking.

A sad sign of the recession maybe – the number of stray dogs being put down by City of York Council is rising. The council and the Dogs Trust say the main problem is that the shelters which would normally home stray dogs are already full with animals handed over by people who can no longer afford or cope with dogs.
Here’s one which could run and run. Across the country, councils have closed care homes, schools and other facilities they have run, often as part of cost cutting. But what happens to the buildings? The Hemel Gazette asked the local council for the amount the council had spent on maintaining empty school buildings, and found £700,000 had been spent – at a time when parents close to the empty schools struggle to get school places.
In Cumbria, there are 19 serving police officers with driving offences on their record. The News and Star in Cumbria reported the information after gaining it through an FOI:
Twenty offences were carried out by 19 officers currently serving with the force, the figures reveal.

Nine were speeding convictions, six were offences of driving without due care and attention and two were convictions for careless driving.

All but three of the offences were carried out by officers bearing the rank of constable.

8. What does your council own?

Eric Pickles is quite keen on the idea of all councils publishing a list of all the buildings they own, and how much they are worth. In some areas, it’s already common knowledge. I believe Birmingham City Council has already published such a list. In Wirral, the information came to light this week via whatdotheyknow and was published in the Wirral News. The council sits on property worth half a billion pounds. Perhaps one for more newspapers to pursue?
On this blog, I have noted FOIs which have looked at copper thefts, lead thefts, steel thefts and various other metal thefts. The Peterborough Evening Telegraph has done a great feature on the scale of metal thefts in general in Cambridgeshire – and found there have been almost 400 in the first seven months of this year alone. Copper remains the biggest, followed closely by lead – the latter being a particular problem for churches.

FOR a few pounds of metal thieves will scramble onto roofs, rip gas pipes away from walls to leave exposed dangerous piping, or desecrate graves. And with copper and lead prices continuing to rise year on year the incidents show no signs of abating.

More than £130,000 of metal has been ripped from roofs, plundered from factories, and even taken from graveyards, playgrounds and hospitals this year.

10. Trading Standards

And finally, good stuff from the Liverpool ECHO which used FOI to uncover the extent of the trade in fake goods in Liverpool. It asked the council’s trading standards department to reveal the volume of stuff seized over the past three years, plus details of the raids they carried out. It makes for interesting reading.

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