FOI Friday: School holidays, council houses, non-paying councillors (again) and more


Asbesto in publicly-owned homes <Beyond the Pillars

Blog Beyond the Pillars, which covers issues involving the North Ireland government, used FOI recently to find out how many homes owned by the NI Housing Executive – in other words, council homes – had asbestos in them. The answer: 70,000. 70,000! Three-fifths of publicly-owned homes, in other words.

Trying to get this information in England, for example, would be much harder, because Housing Associations remain outside the scope of the Freedom of Information Act, despite the fact that most of them were created out of old housing departments within councils.

There has been talk of including Housing Associations under the scope of FOI – but little action.

However, according to the Whatdotheyknow website:

If a Housing Association is strictly subject to the Freedom of Information Act depends on if it is wholly owned by public bodies. According to a Housing Corporation statment on accessing information: “You can also write to housing associations. Most try to be as open as possible and will provide you with information when they are able. The Housing Corporation requires housing associations to be accessible, accountable and transparent to residents and other stakeholders. The National Housing Federation Code of Governance states that associations should operate in an open and accountable manner by generally making information about their work available to their residents, local communities and other stakeholders.” *.

Also the Information Commissioner has ruled that Housing Associations are subject to the Environmental Information Regulations.

Based on the above, then surely the BTP FOI request is one worth trying with Housing Associations across the rest of the UK?

Sexual assaults on the railways < Mancunian Matters

A strong FOI article from Mancunian Matters, the website of the News Associates journalism training course in Manchester, looking at sexual assaults on trains in and around Greater Manchester:

Reports of unwanted sexual behaviour on Greater Manchester’s rail network have more than doubled over the past year, MM can reveal.

Shocking figures in a Freedom of Information response from British Transport Police (BTP) highlight a sharp rise in recorded incidents on trains and at stations across the area.

Examples of unwanted sexual behaviour can include cases of rubbing, leering, sexual comments, indecent acts, and more serious sexual assault.

Of the cases recorded by BTP for 2015/16, 82% of incidents were reported by female victims.

The detail in the last paragraph suggests the FOI made very specific requests for data, which always increases the chances to greater success by reply.

That school holidays story < Cambridge News

The law court ruling last week that parents can take their children on holiday in term time so long as they regularly attend school was been a headline-grabber around the country.

As it’s likely to be an issue which will keep on attracting interest, localising it through FOI should be a priority for newsdesks everywhere.

The Cambridge News had though ahead on this front and was able to report a local context to last week’s announcement:

To date, some 126 parents have been taken to court under section 444 of the Education Act in the 2015/16 academic year, compared to 117 parents in 2014/15.

The figures, released under Freedom of Information laws, also reveal Cambridgeshire County Council has so far dished out 569 penalty notices for ‘unauthorised absences’ to parents of 5 to 16-year-olds in 2015/16. This compares to 665 in 2014/15.

Some 415 of the 2015/16 notices were issued for unauthorised term-time family holidays, compared to 571 in 2014/15.

Requesting access to any briefings, communications or successful payment rates could be a next step for reporters seeking new lines for this story.

Using Private Eye’s data to look at foreign ownership of homes < Braintee Times

Private Eye, so often critical of digital journalism in its Street of Shame column, delivered a superb example of data journalism the other month when it released FOI-collected data from the Land Registry which showed every property in the UK which was owned by overseas investors.

The results are here and, brilliantly, the original excel files are available to download too. Newsquest titles in Essex have used the data to do localised versions for their areas, revealing some eye-watering figures:

FOREIGN companies spent nearly £1billion buying up property and land in south Essex during a 15 year splurge.

Many of the purchases came from firms based in tax havens such as Panama, which snapped up sites across Southend, Basildon and Canvey worth £4.5million.

Companies registered in other territories like Jersey, Guernsey and the British Virgin Islands bought more than 300 sites in total between 1999 and 2014.

The information was released by the Land Registry under the Freedom of Information Act, following a campaign from Private Eye magazine for greater transparency.

Council struggling to sell off properties? < Cornish Guardian

For all council press offices enjoy controlling the here and now headlines, most will admit a well-timed FOI asking whether what was promised has actually happened are the ones hardest to put a positive spin on.

With so many councils looking to sell buildings to save costs as government cuts bite, I thought this story from the Cornish Guardian asking how many public toilets it had managed to transfer out of its control, after vowing to do so two years ago. The answer is: Not as many as it would have liked.

And as a result, that’s become quite a political issue – which a clever spark at the council thought could be solved by refusing to name which ones were staying in council control:

Stung by accusations that the council had performed a “policy U-turn,” officials at Truro refused to say which toilets remained under their control – but yesterday, after a 23-day delay, answered the question following a formal Freedom of Information request from the Cornish Guardian. The council’s refusal to identify the toilets on March 31 has cost taxpayers £150-£350 to deal with the FOI application.

 The nine toilets still operated by Cornwall Council are to be funded by “external solutions” such as the introduction of “pay-as-you-go” charges and new door locks.

Proof of the power of FOI right there – especially when combined with the memory of the newsroom.

Finding out what people really said during consultations < Prestwich Guide

I think I’ve written about council consultations before. Councils place a lot of their credibility by their ability to hold consultations, but many people are naturally suspicious about how seriously councils then take the results.

The Prestwich Guide, in Bury, reported on the consultation over plans to change the main shopping street in the area. And it appears to have cast doubt on the council’s assumed support for the plan:

After making a Freedom of Information request to Bury Council, The Guide received the 498 comments made by people during the consultation period at the end of last year.

Of the 477 people who expressed a view, 250 (52 per cent) opposed either the proposals and 87 (18 per cent) backed them. The other 140 were neutral.

Cllr Connolly’s report noted “a large proportion of respondents expressed concern” about elements of the proposals, but did not quantify the level of public opposition.

Bury Liberal Democrats leader, Cllr Tim Pickstone, said: “If it is true that the full outcome of the consultation was not made available to councillors before they made their decision, then this is a disgrace.

“A majority of residents seem to have said that they oppose the scheme, but this was not made clear.”

No wonder the idea of council consulting is so widely mocked by people involved!

More councillors and their council tax < Yorkshire Post

As mentioned in the last FOI Friday, the multi-year battle by the Bolton News to find out the names of councillors who hadn’t paid their council tax, continues to have ripples around the country.

This week, the Yorkshire Post reported on councillors who had been named for not paying their tax across the White Rose empire. Interestingly, some councils still seem keen not to name and shame:

While most councils across Yorkshire and the Humber provided either full details or a significant amount of information in response to the FOI request, Leeds claimed it would take too long to locate the information despite other large authorities, like neighbouring Bradford, having no problem doing so.

Rising Private Ambulance costs for the NHS < Lancashire Telegraph

PRIVATE ambulance spending has risen by more than 50 per cent when it comes to ferrying patients from Lancashire and beyond to the region’s hospitals, according to new figures.

North West Ambulance Service (NWAS) bosses say they have experienced a spike in 999 calls demand but ambulance service leaders including the College of Paramedics, say more funding should be given directly to the NHS to train and recruit its own staff to plug the gap.

And this week’s Moaning Authority award goes to…. Cumbria County Council

Moaning Authority rather trivialises what I’m about to talk about here,  but it’s the name of this slot, so here we go.

Cumbria County Council fought tooth and nail to stop the name of a little girl of girl who died in tragic circumstances from being released to the media.

According to the North West Evening Mail, based in Barrow:

Little Poppi Worthington, from Barrow, died aged just 13 months in December 2012 following an alleged serious sexual assault at the hands of her father, Paul Worthington, a judge ruled in January.

Cumbria County Council – the authority that sought the secrecy clause as part of care proceedings for Poppi’s siblings – had previously insisted that money spent on attempting to suppress the name of the toddler from the public domain until 2028 was just £780. But the actual price tag of the secrecy order was £12,271, the Evening Mail can finally reveal.

The real figure was eventually obtained using the Freedom of Information Act after communications experts within the authority refused to provide the sum on request.

According to Hold the Front Page:

Reporter Caroline Barber, who filed the FoI request, added: “Even after the communications department admitted the full cost associated with the order was more than £780, they refused to provide the exact sum when asked – stating they would only answer under a second FoI to put the query on ‘an official footing’.

“This shows a deliberate and continued disregard for transparency and openness by the authority which we were determined to overturn.”

It’s worth remembering that the death of a little girl sits at the heart of all of this – and the fact that a council was so reluctant to open itself up to scrutiny on such a serious matter is, surely, a damning indictment of the way that council views itself and the people it serves.




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