FOI Friday: The power of FOI, pesky press officers, school place race and mouse droppings


The power of FOI confirmed in Essex

You don’t have to look far to find critics of the Freedom of Information Act within journalistic circles. It’s not a replacement for investigative journalism, it’s too easy to ignore, it’s never going to uncover Watergate and so on.

And, of course, if the point of FOI was to replace investigative journalism, then it would of course not be a good thing. It should be seen as another tool to help us do the job. And rather than bemoaning the tool isn’t as good as it could be, lets make the most of what we’ve got while always asking for more.

It can make a difference, as the Yellow Advertiser series in Essex showed this week, when it emerged an inquiry into historic child sex abuse had been re-opened for a second time thanks to the paper’s investigation.

Holdthefrontpage reports:

Last year Essex Police announced it would probe allegations of offences committed in the 1980s and 1990s against children, particularly boys in local authority or foster care, following a Yellow Advertiser investigation into claims of an establishment cover-up.

Detectives had summoned the Basildon-based Advertiser to force headquarters in Chelmsford last week to announce the end of the investigation, codenamed Operation SANDS.

However, at the briefing, the paper handed over a document containing detailed allegations about more than 10 men and women based in and around Southend in the 1980s.

Editor Mick Ferris said: “We are pleased Essex Police has reopened the case for a second time, once again due to information brought forth by the Yellow Advertiser.

“Our historic abuse investigation began three years ago when we discovered, through Freedom of Information, a series of compensation payments authorised by Essex Council. The council refused to answer even basic questions about those payments.”

FOI was never meant to replace anything – journalism which makes a difference still requires determination and many other skills. But as a tool to help get to the truth, we’re far better off with it than without it.

How FOI can beat ‘open data’ time and again

Digital newsrooms know few stories engage local readers more effectively than zero-star hygiene lists of restaurants. The data is freely available, and regularly updated – but only tells half of the story.

Behind the zero star rating lives a layer of detail and information which can often only be extracted thanks to the Freedom of Information Act.

The Derby Telegraph used FOI this week to look at why a pizza takeaway was given zero stars:

The report has only just been released to the Derby Telegraph following a Freedom of Information request:

When they visited the site on Abbey Street in July, food hygiene inspectors found mouse droppings on food preparation surfaces that were used that day to prepare raw meats and ready-to-eat salads.

They also found the droppings on shelves where food packaging was stored and behind a microwave.

Much better than just saying zero stars surely!

The problem with FOI and press officers

Problems with press officers getting too close to the FOI process persist at councils across the country. This example from the Hackney Citizen, via its ‘Titbits’ column this week, was a new one one on me though:

Hackney Council has reaffirmed its commitment to transparency by rejecting a Freedom of Information request over a minor error in the question. The Citizen had asked for the Red-Amber-Green fire safety ratings for Hackney schools the council gave to the Department for Education (DfE). But the council turned this down, noting that the ratings were not in fact given to the DfE. Where could the Citizen have got the idea they were? Why, the council’s press office!

Other FOI stories I’ve seen this week:

How close do you need to live to a school to get your child in? < Trinity Mirror data unit (Birmingham Mail)


Children at some Birmingham schools have to live just one minute’s walk away in order to claim a place.

Based on last year’s offers, the last child offered a place at St Augustine’s Catholic Primary School in Birmingham was in the non-faith category and lived just 0.06 miles from the school, a walk that would take around one minute.

Pupils given places at St Joseph’s RC Primary School in Dudley needed to live just two minutes from the school at 0.11 miles away, while the last child offered a place at Christ The King Catholic Primary School lived just 0.16 miles away, a walk of around three minutes.

There were 13 primary schools in the local area, including five schools in Birmingham, where the last child offered a place lived less than five minutes walk away.

The dangers of trampolines < Wolverhampton Express and Star

They are fun – and help persuade children to get off the couch.

But, like all physical activity, trampoline centres come with risks.

Figures released today reveal the rise in bounce parks has also led to a rise in injuries caused by related falls.

West Midlands Ambulance Service says that, along with the usual knocks and scrapes from weekend football matches, trampolining is now being added to the list of most common call-outs.

Paramedics have been called out to trampoline parks in the West Midlands more than 200 times since 2015, new figures have revealed.

The figures, released as part of an Freedom of Information request made to West Midlands Ambulance Service, show that there has been a total of 279 call outs to 12 trampoline parks in our region since 2015.

Police call outs to Glasgow Airport < Scotsman

Police call-outs to Glasgow Airport to deal with passenger behaviour have rocketed this year. Officers have been called to the airport 243 times so far in 2017, easily exceeding the total of 192 incidents for all of 2016.

Other Scottish airports have recorded decreases or slight increases, but Glasgow – regarded as the country’s biggest “holiday” airport – is already 26 per cent up on last year.

Suicide amongst police officers < Belfast Telegraph

Seventeen PSNI officers have died by suicide in the last 15 years, it can be revealed.

Figures released under Freedom of Information show that is almost 20% of the 96 officers who have died on and off duty since 2002.

Of the 15 who died on duty in that time, seven lost their lives as a result of traffic accidents and three died by suicide.

Two died as a result of terrorism, two from natural causes, and one after an accident.

Are speed cameras switched on? < Press Association (Express and Star)

Out of 272 fixed cameras only 14 are active, Freedom of Information figures have revealed.

The Staffordshire Road Safety Partnership (SRSP) first cut the number of units in 2011 to save money.

Initially they would not state how many but it soon emerged around 130 had been axed. The partnership still displays a map of where all of the cameras are but does not state which ones are working or not.

Ambulance delays over 30 minutes < Southern Daily Echo

THE number of sick and injured patients in the south who wait more than 30 minutes in an ambulance outside hospital before being transferred to A&E has increased by a third in the last two years, new figures have revealed.

According to NHS England, patients should be transferred from an ambulance to a A&E within 15 minutes.

However, figures for South Central Ambulance Service NHS Foundation Trust, which serves Hampshire, reveal that the number of patients waiting more than 30 minutes rose from 9445 in 2014/2015 to 12,607 in 2016/2017.

Anti-social behaviour in Warrington

THE top five hotspots for anti-social behaviour in Warrington have been revealed with the highest number of reports recorded in Bewsey and Whitecross.

Data requested under a Freedom of Information Act by the Warrington Guardian has uncovered figures documenting the areas where police received the most reports for this type of criminal activity between July 6, 2016, and July 5, 2017.

The highest ward area for anti-social behaviour reports was listed as Bewsey and Whitecross, followed by Warrington town centre, Poplars and Hulme, Whittle Hall and Fairfield and Howley.


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