FOI Friday: Councils profiting on death, the food police, monitoring the impact of cuts and gun injuries uncovered

10 good examples of FOI in action from the local, regional and (in one case), national press:

1. One ‘L’ of an FOI – Yorkshire Evening Post

The YEP made the most out of a familiar FOI – asking for stats relating to driving tests – to create something which was much more informative than the usual ‘Someone took XX attempts to pass their test.’ Data includes the pass rate broken down by men and women … giving a Leeds answer to much-asked question maybe?

2. Council mobile phone spending bills done well – Hull Daily Mail

The ‘shock horror look at the bill for mobile phones in the council’ FOI often falls down when a canny council spokesman asks: “Are you saying councils shouldn’t provide mobiles to staff?” However, the Hull Daily Mail took the spending on mobile phones, plus the number of phones, for two councils and compared the costs. The question then became why Hull City Council’s bill was so much higher than neighbouring East Riding, despite comparable users.

3. When ‘no documentation’ is a story in itself – Islington Tribune

Sometimes, it’s the lack of information from an FOI request which makes the story, which is why I’ve included this example in FOI Friday. According to the article, a row had broken out over the council’s decision to rename a park. Given the controversy, the Tribune’s FOI request asking for documentation relating to the decision probably couldn’t have yielded a better result than the one they got … confirming no documentation on the decision at all!

4. An unusual death tax – York Press

If you want a plaque placed on top of where your loved one’s ashes were scattered, it costs  – in York – it costs over £300. The cost of the plaque for York City Council is £66. That’s a nice mark up, isn’t it? A simple, but effective, use of FOI.

5. An unusual death tax, part two – Leicester Mercury

It would appear that not even death is a good enough reasons to be let off paying your rent in Leicester, where the authority admits collecting £35k in three years from the estates of dead folk in owed rent. (This FOI might fall down if a housing association runs ex-council housing stock, in which case FOI doesn’t apply, unless the HA is wholly owned by one single public body).

6. Liability orders, council bailiffs – York Press

Here’s one I expect could run and run. The York Press asked the city council for the number of liability orders it obtained from magistrates, allowing it to use bailiffs to get late council tax and business rates. The level of data collected by the Press is impressive – it not only reveals the number of orders and the amount collected each year, but breaks down by postcode the areas most likely to be affected.

7. Reporting on the Food Police – Guardian Northerner Blog

The Guardian’s Northerner Blog used FOI to ask several Northern city councils to provide the environmental health reports for restaurants and takeaways which scored 0/5 in their inspections. It’s enough to make your stomach turn. Of course – as the article points out – the 0/5 rating is a snapshot of just one day (although you have to assume that not all could be having just a bad day) and publishing these stories can lead to tricky conversations with the owners.

8. How fire crew cuts led to response times rising – Basildon Echo

A good example here of using FOI to keep track of the impact of a spending cut decision. Perhaps this one is unsurprising, but it’s a good example of the local media holding decision makers to account: When Canvey Island’s full-time fire crews were replaced with retained crews, it took longer to get to fires.

9. Gun injuries revealed – Leatherhead Advertiser

A statistic can tell a story – in this case the number of gun injuries in Surrey. But scratch a little deeper, by asking for types of guns involved, and getting some useful expert knowledge, in this case a former police inspector, and a fascinating and informative tale emerges.

10. Abuse of disabled parking spaces – Teesside Evening Gazette

Parking related FOIs often make the headlines but this is the first time I’ve seen a publication ask for specific fines around abuse of disabled parking spaces.

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FOI Friday is compiled using Google News and tip-offs sent to this blog or to me via Twitter @davidhiggerson

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