Back again, a little later than planned, the latest look at how FOI is being used by the regional press to hold the great and sometimes good to account…
We kick off this week with a story which should shame Bolton Council – but in Grimsby.
As has been well documented, the Bolton News has had to fight for two years to get the names of councillors who were late paying their council tax. The council is now under orders to do so after the Bolton News refused to give up the fight through the appeals process.
North East Lincolnshire Council appear to have been far more forthcoming to the Grimsby Telegraph, which this week reported the names of the councillors involved there and the amount owed. Particular credit to the Telegraph for the effort clearly put into getting reaction and context from each person named by the council.
In February, the Daily Post in North Wales broke the exclusive story that police in North Wales had intentionally run over a dog to avoid it causing accidents on the A55. It was a story which was reported widely after the Post broke it, not least by the BBC which managed to take all the facts from the Post but failed to credit the source.
Anyway, an FOI story emerged this week in the Post which revealed how much it cost to repair the police vehicle involved. It was submitted by a Post reader who describes himself as a supporter of the police.
The answer, by the way, is around £1,600. More relevant to this blog is the fact this story is that it is proof that awareness of FOI amongst readers is critical if we are to engage the public in the stories we write.
Meanwhile, in South Shields, the Gazette reported on an FOI by a visitor to the town who had been fined for using a bus lane by mistake.
Fred Kirkland used FOI to find out how many other people had found themselves confused and all but forced into a bus lane by traffic management systems.
He found he wasn’t alone – more than 400 other motorists had been caught out over a 9-month period.
In the meantime, he has taken his fine to an appeal hearing, which he won.
Here’s an FOI from the Trinity Mirror data unit which could be replicated anywhere – the number of complaints made about landlords to local authorities. Ealing tops the list for complaints made by people living in rented accommodation – a topical issue which will resonate with a lot of readers.
The use of laser pens was, I always thought, restricted to trying to target pilots by juvenile pranksters. Apparently not, according to Chroniclelive, which reported that over 500 crimes involving the pens had been logged by police since 2014.
Police in Cumbria have used ‘gagging clauses’ in exit contracts 12 times to keep departing staff quiet, according to the Evening Mail:
POLICE chiefs have used public funds to buy the silence of 12 employees as they left the county’s police force in the last five years.
Cumbria Constabulary confirmed it had spent £334,511.44 on settlement agreements for the employees when they agreed to depart between 2011 and 2015.
The controversial contracts, which were known as compromise agreements until 2013, provided each officer with an enhanced severance package providing they agree to a set of strict conditions.
A good example of using FOI to ask very specific questions, and presumably making the most of the fact the police can do database searches based on key words. In this case, I’m guessing the police used the phrase ‘ATM’ or similar to report on the number of crimes committed in and around cash points.
If audience analytics have taught us anything, it is that readers love stories about mice and rats. So this story at the Cambridge News about a rise in the number of cases of rats being reported to the local council’s environmental health department should be a quick win for newsrooms around the country.
Perhaps more relevant to some areas more than others, the Crewe Chronicle reports on the 100 cases of police time being taken up dealing with livestock on the road. Expect to read about sheep, horses, cows and a pig at the above link.
Good use of using FOI to get data by policing unit, so more local than a constabulary-wide figure.
With so much concern about the ‘backdoor privatisation’ of the NHS, numbers on how much is being spent with private firms will always generate interest. This story – or rather, the large part of it available online – is a fascinating read about the goings on at one NHS Trust in Wales, especially the line about results being interpreted in Australia before being sent back to Wales.
Lincoln is part of the country where legal highs are actually illegal, so this data-led FOI request makes for fascinating reading about the scale of the problem alongside other drugs.
Good data-led FOI stories allow journalists to get beyond top-level figures and provide a context which means something to readers. This example from the Irvine Times looked at which supermarkets suffer the highest number of crimes, and what those crimes were. Extra points for the use of the word ‘thievery’.
This week’s moaning authority is… North Lanarkshire
So it’s good news from Scotland’s Information Commissioner who has sent North Lanarkshire to the naughty step for refusing FOI requests from a campaigner on equal pay.
According to the Daily Record:
Mark Irvine requested the details of a number of exit packages and the remuneration of the local authority’s Chief Executive through a Freedom of Information request.
However, the council responded to Mr Irvine, stating that it considered his requests to be vexatious and so it was not obliged to respond.
But Scottish Information Commissioner Rosemary Agnew has ruled that the council, which has been at the centre of a long- standing equal pay row with many of their employers, must now release the information.
The commissioner ruled that there was a public interest in Mr Irvine’s repeated requests. The council argued that he submitted a lot of requests and also ran a blog commenting on the requests (Hopefully blogging about FOI isn’t a reason to get requests rejected!)
“It’s not just about the money, it’s about their dignity.
“It’s extremely concerning that a Labour council have spent so much money fighting this.”