Freedom Of Information

FOI Friday: The Tories who clearly love the Freedom of Information Act – and 9 other stories made possible by FOI this week

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You don’t need Freedom of Information to expose a politician as a hypocrite. The Daily Mail proved that when it took a matter of hours to call out Chris Grayling after he attempted to ‘shame’ the media for using FOI to get stories!

Grayling, it turns out, was a serial user of FOI when in opposition, using FOI for perhaps the grubbiest purpose of all: Not to get information into the public domain, but to throw bricks at Labour. But who am I to call into question the motives that lie behind an FOI request? Exactly – no-one. Motive shouldn’t matter when it comes to FOI, it’s just about the right of any member of the public to ask any question of authority and having a reasonable expectation that they’ll get an answer.

But while the Tories in Westminster may loathe FOI as they continue to plot their stitch-up to effectively close the Act down, it continues to be a very useful tool to Conservative campaigners elsewhere in the country.

Take the Welsh Tories for example. A quick search of the Conservatives Wales website shows as recently as last month the Tories were pushing FOI-based stories at the Press, such as their outrage at NHS redundancy payouts. They also had no qualms providing attention-grabbing quotes to WalesOnline to support an FOI-based story on redundancies pay outs in councils – the irony of the Tories locally blaming councils for cuts foisted on them by a Conservative government clearly lost on them.

Meanwhile in Scotland, the Scottish Tories remain huge fans of FOI – although it’s worth noting the current review in Westminster wouldn’t impact the FOI Act in Scotland. Only last week, the Tartan Tories used FOI to claim the gulf in educational attainment between children from wealthy families and children from poorer families was now wider than ever. And to reveal the number of homes 999 crews won’t visit. It doesn’t take long to find many more.

So while it’s clear the Tories at the top in Westminster loathe FOI, there are many within the party who continue to make the most of it. Which rather begs the question: Who is driving the plan to axe the act?


FOI Friday: Why FOI beats open data and 9 other stories made possible this week thanks to FOI

The FOI request about theft of petrol from petrol stations is hardly a new one, but that doesn’t alter the fact it sums up why FOI trumps the principle of open data, from a journalistic perspective at least.

The St Helen’s Reporter used FOI to find out how many petrol drive-offs there had been. Answer (see below): lots.

One of the government’s current arguments against FOI is that it can be far more transparent if it just makes departments and public bodies release more data.

The argument, to some extent, has merit. Being more open with data is very welcome, but the problem comes when you only want part of the data, or a level of detail that isn’t available in the data.

The reporters at the St Helen’s Reporter wouldn’t have been able to get this data using, the crime stats which website which is a huge leap forward on what we had before (ie nothing) but still very limited in the data it shares.

The main point of FOI is to give people the right to know – even journalists, despite Chris Grayling’s obtuse outburst this week. Open data alone puts the decision on what we get to know back with the people who hold the data. FOI is the opposite. The two need to co-exist. It doesn’t take a genius to work out why the notion of open data is much more popular with those who hold the information.

So, to the petrol story:


The two Tories showing it’s the Freedom in FOI – and the press in general – they really can’t stand

If ever there was any doubt about the motives behind the Conservatives’ review of Freedom Of Information, leader of the Commons Chris Grayling has surely set the record straight.

Speaking in the Commons this week, he said:

The irony is that the person who said that he regretted the Freedom of Information Act 2000 most was the former Member of Parliament Jack Straw, who introduced it. He said that he looked back on it as one of the things that he had got wrong. This Government are committed to the Act, but we want to ensure that it works well and fairly, and cannot be abused or misused. It is, on occasion, misused by those who use it as, effectively, a research tool to generate stories for the media, and that is not acceptable. It is a legitimate and important tool for those who want to understand why and how Governments make decisions, and this Government do not intend to change that.

His comments have been widely reported. The fact his comments are recorded in Hansard mean Grayling – who previously fell out of favour after announcing that he felt hotel owners had the right to turn gay couples away – can’t complain about being misquoted this time.

You can only speculate as to why he’s said what he has said. Being charitable, maybe he was just being honest. More likely, however, is the fact that the fervour in Whitehall to reign in the the FOI Act means it’s all but a given in many minds that it will be.


The chilling impact the Government’s FOI Commission looks set to have on our right to know

If a picture tells a thousand words, then a screen grab of an article on the Guardian’s website is perhaps a bit of a con, but it sums up neatly the grave threat currently facing the Freedom of Information Act:

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The post-election review set up to look into the working of the Freedom Of Information Act has felt like a foregone conclusion. Its terms of reference were originally as follows:


Freedom of Information faces its biggest threat yet – here’s why


It shouldn’t be a surprise that a Government is planning to deliver what could be a devastating blow to the Freedom of Information Act. It probably should be a surprise, however, that it has taken so long.

This lunchtime, the Government, still in the first flush of ‘oh, so we really are in charge, aren’t we!’ thinking, announced a ‘commission’ to look at the Freedom of Information Act.

The Government’s position is pretty plain. Michael Gove, the former FOI-dodging education secretary who tried to claim sending emails via gmail and not government accounts meant they weren’t covered by the Act, set out the government’s view pretty clearly shortly after becoming justice secretary.

At the heart of this commission is the concern that civil servants don’t feel they can speak freely for fear of what they say, or more aptly write, ending up becoming public via the Freedom of Information Act. Call me a cynic if you wish, but I spy a smokescreen aimed at making it harder for those in power to be held accountable by those who ultimately pay their wages – you and I.

Why do I think that? Some reasons:


The police and crime commissioner who wants to turn whistleblowers into criminals


When police and crime commissioners were first proposed by the coalition government, the idea was that they would make police forces more accountable.

According to the Association of Police and Crime Commisioners:

The role of the PCCs is to be the voice of the people and hold the police to account. They are responsible for the totality of policing.

PCCs aim to cut crime and deliver an effective and efficient police service within their force area.

PCCs have been elected by the public to hold Chief Constables and the force to account, effectively making the police answerable to the communities they serve.

So how’s that thing about holding the police force to account going down in Grimsby, Humberside?


FOI Friday: 34 years on the run, social media at councils, snooping councils and overtime for detectives


The burglar on the run for 34 years < Belfast Telegraph

Thousands of suspected criminals are dodging justice after disappearing while on bail in Northern Ireland, it can be revealed.

Some of them are still on the run more than three decades after they vanished.

The suspects are linked to almost 13,000 crimes, including dozens of sex offences.

Nearly 1,500 individuals have been at large for at least a decade.

The figures have been branded “embarrassing”, with justice officials accused of allowing people to vanish into thin air.

Social media leads to demotion < Daily Post

Public service workers in North Wales have landed themselves in hot water over inappropriate use of the internet and posts on social media.

A Freedom of Information request by the Daily Post reveals nearly 60 council employees, health workers and fire service staff have either been sacked, suspended, disciplined or demoted since 2013.

Thousands of local authority, police, fire, health and university employees have access to the internet at work, with varying levels of personal use allowed.


FOI: Thinking beyond the obvious when asking for data

Last week, many newspapers and other media outlets carried stories triggered by and FOI which asked for details of the crimes committed by children.

Nothing unusual in that, given how common the ‘x number of 10 year olds arrested for x’ which have been made possible by FOI over the years.

But this particular FOI – a product of a partnership between security firm ADT and the Victim Support charity – tackled the subject differently, and there’s a handy tip for all journalists in the way they did it.

The FOI request asked for the number of burglaries committed in an area, and the number which could be traced back to young people under 18.

The result was an eye-catching headline for the partnership, which is seeking to raise attention to the issue of burglaries committed by young people.

The Victim Support press release states:

Nottinghamshire, Greater Manchester and London had the highest proportion of burglaries committed by juvenile offenders. Where an offender had been identified those police forces found under-18s were involved in 43 per cent, 41 per cent and 37 per cent of break-ins respectively.

The police force area with the lowest percentage of burglaries by under-18s was Wiltshire, at just three per cent, followed by Norfolk (9.8 per cent), Thames Valley (13.9 per cent) and Durham (14 per cent).

A great example of looking beyond the obvious headline possibilities when thinking up what to ask for when submitting an FOI. An absolute number can carry a great headline, but a well-crafted comparison can take a story in an entirely different direction.

FOI Friday: Council credit cards, mental health beds crisis, schools with asbestos and 50 Shades of Grey…

FOI ideas image: Yarn Deliveries

So, what are councils using credit cards for at the moment? < Bristol Post

Taxpayers in Bristol have been footing the bill for council workers to stay in expensive hotels, eat at posh restaurants and buy designer clothes, the Bristol Post has learned.

Almost £680,000 was spent on Bristol City Council payment cards last year, with thousands of pounds spent on fast food, cinema trips, iTunes downloads and orders from online retailer Amazon.

Figures obtained by the Post under Freedom of Information rules show that in 2014, an average of £1,860 a day was spent on council procurement cards, which are used by council workers to pay for expenses like travel, office supplies and catering.

Mentally ill patients held in prison cells because no hospital beds are available < Swindon Advertiser

A SWINDON patient had to spend almost two days in a police cell under the Mental Health Act because there was nowhere else for them to go.

Figures released after a Freedom of Information request show that in the past two years almost 200 people have been held in Wiltshire Police cells because there was no suitable healthcare provision.

The longest holding period was 37 and a half hours, while a 16-year-old was detained for eight hours.

Ninety-four people were detained in Swindon and Wiltshire in 2013 and in 2014 the figure was 95.

How many schools contain asbestos? < Nelson Leader

Teaching leaders claim lives are being put at risk after it was revealed more than 90% of Lancashire schools contain asbestos.

Figures obtained after a Freedom of Information request reveal as many as 41 schools in the Burnley and Padiham area could be classed as being “at risk”, as well as a further 38 in Pendle and 22 in the Ribble Valley.


FOI: The council boss who threatened to sue a hospital

Good work from the Chester Chronicle in uncovering a remarkable spat between a local council and a local hospital.

The Chronicle used FOI to obtain letters between Cheshire West and Chester Council and the Countess of Chester Hospital following a spat between the two bodies.

As Chester West and Cheshire has long been one of the cheerleaders for reducing the strength of FOI legislation, it won’t come as any surprise to hear it was the NHS Trust which has been revealing the information.

The row broke out after the hospital lost a sexual health contract to a neighbouring NHS Trust. Councils are responsible for public health these days, so Cheshire West was the body doing the awarding of this contract.