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

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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:

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FOI Friday: Affordable housing, music festivals, busy civil servants and more

Making hopefully not another false dawn return, here’s a round-up of stories from the local media in the UK which have been made possible thanks to the Freedom of Information Act

Lack of affordable housing < Brixton Buzz

If you read just one story this week from this list, make it this one. It’s a great example of local knowledge being used to mine the responses to an FOI request posted on Whatdotheyknow.

The number of new ‘affordable’ homes that Lambeth Council plans to build at Cressingham Gardens has dropped to 16. A Freedom of Information request has shown that this is the figure that the Labour Group is now aspiring towards.

We reported on Brixton Buzz yesterday how an FoI was able to flush out the land details of where Lambeth wants to build new homes. This is part of a £55m grant from the Greater London Authority.

We have now scrutinised this document a little deeper. Buried away in the data is the exact number of affordable homes for each site.

It was with some surprise that we found that an entire estate looks like it will be bulldozed so that only an extra 16 affordable homes can be built.

Crimes committed at a music festival < Liverpool Echo

Summer music festivals are big business, but the crimes committed at them can be hard to get access to other than perhaps the headline stats.

The Liverpool Echo was able to report what went on at dance festival Creamfields thanks to an FOI request:

Two allegations of rape were reported to police at this year’s Creamfields festival .

Data released under the Freedom Of Information Act (FOI) showed the incidents were said to have taken place on Saturday, September 26.

The crime reports were revealed as Cheshire police published data relating to a request for details of violent and sexual offences alleged to have taken place at the four-day dance music festival.

There were 12 offences of violence, two of which were assaults without injury on police constables – in both cases involving revellers spitting at the officer.

What are those civil servants up to? < WalesOnline

A tidal lagoon off the cost of South Wales is obviously big news. A review into whether to have a tidal lagoon was also big news. But the silence has been deafening since the review happened. So WalesOnline asked what had been happening.

Lots of reports have been written, apparently:

Around 50 officials in the UK Government have produced “a very significant” number of reports about the Swansea Bay Tidal Lagoon, which remains in limbo.

The case of the £1.3 billion energy project is being handled by the UK’s Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS), which has remained tight-lipped since an independent review into tidal lagoon energy was published in January.

In a response to a Freedom of Information request by WalesOnline about what has been going on behind the scenes since the review and, prior to that, the granting of planning permission for the lagoon in 2015, a BEIS statement said: “We estimate that a minimum of 50 staff have worked on the assessment of the proposed Swansea Bay Tidal Lagoon to date.”

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FOI Friday: Criminals applying to be taxi drivers, citizenship test failures and common names for crooks

FOI ideas image: Yarn Deliveries

Would be taxi drivers and their criminal convictions < Lincolnshire Live

Sex offenders who have assaulted children in the past have applied to become taxi drivers in Lincolnshire, new data has revealed.

Figures from the Disclosure and Barring Service (DBS) show that those who applied to become cabbies between 2012/13 and 2015/16 included people with a combined total of 18 convictions for indecent assault, including 12 on children aged under 16.

A total of 869 applications from across the area between 2012/13 and 2015/16 were revealed to have previous convictions, out of 4,238 applications, with a total of 5,596 previous convictions, according to exclusive figures revealed following a Freedom of Information request.

Citizenship test pass rates < Manchester Evening News

More than half of the people taking the British citizenship test in Oldham failed last year – one of the highest proportions in the country.

Exclusive figures obtained under Freedom of Information laws show a total of 552 people took the test in Oldham in 2016. Of those, 330 – or 60% – failed.

The most common first names for criminals <  Yorkshire Post

The most common first names of criminals in West Yorkshire have been revealed by police. Men or boys named Daniel were linked to 632 local crimes last year, making it the most common criminal name across the county.

Which countries do hospital staff come from? < DevonLive

New figures have revealed a Devon hospital relies on 98 staff from the EU, which some fear could lead to a staffing crisis as the Brexit process continues.

So far no deal has been made with the EU regarding the fate of EU nationals living and working in the UK. Many health commentators are concerned about the number of NHS jobs filled by workers from the EU.

A Freedom of Information Request to Northern Devon Healthcare Trust was made by Liberal Democrat general election candidate for Torridge and West Devon, David Chalmers.

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FOI Friday: Stories made possible thanks to the law politicians keep trying to kill

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Criminals applying to be taxi drivers < ChroniceLive

Killers, rapists and potential terrorists are among those who have applied to be taxi drivers in the North East.

An investigation by ChronicleLive shows the amount of dangerous criminals trying to become cabbies – with arsonists and violent yobs just some being given licences.

Separate figures revealed through a Freedom of Information request show eight drivers in South Tyneside and six in Gateshead were issued a taxi licence despite criminal convictions between November 2014 and October 2015.

Pauper funerals rising < Sheffield Star

The number of ‘paupers’ funerals’ in Sheffield, for people who died alone or whose family were too poor to pay, is growing.

Sheffield Council paid for 67 such services over the last two years – more than double the 33 it organised across 2012 and 2013 – figures obtained by The Star using the Freedom of Information Act show.

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FOI Friday: 10 stories waiting to be uncovered near you

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An increasingly infrequent look at stories being made possible thanks to FOI

£120,000 of fines for parking in disabled bays < Shropshire Star

Drivers have been fined more than £120,000 by Shropshire Council in the last three years for parking in disabled spaces without a blue badge.

Falling numbers of retained firefighters < BBC

The number of retained firefighters across Wales has hit a nine-year low, figures have shown.

The costs for staff of parking at hospitals < Coventry Telegraph

Staff at University Hospital are are having to pay almost £500 a year just to park at work, new figures have revealed.

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The police force that thinks it would be unfair to name escaped prisoners … unfair on the prisoners, that is

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A great FOI story here from the Blackpool Gazette, which asked Lancashire Police for details of any prisoners who had absconded from their local jail.

It was more than just a speculative fishing trip – not that there’s anything wrong with those by the way – by the Gazette, as a quick search of Google News shows.

Highlights from the FOI included the fact 12 men had successfully escaped from the prison, and that one had managed to evade a return capture for 17 years.

Offences those who had escaped had committed included assault, firearms offences, drug dealing dealing and robbery. So serious then.

With this interest from the Blackpool Gazette, how did Lancashire Police ensure it made the most of the chance to galvanise public support behind getting these men back behind bars?

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FOI Friday: The stories made possible thanks to FOI in September 2016

FOI ideas image: Yarn Deliveries

A look at some of the stories made possible thanks to FOI laws in the UK – most of which can easily be replicated elsewhere…

Ambulances called to one house 500 times < Kent Online

The astonishing figure came to light following a freedom of information request by the KM Group that exposed the full extent of the volumes of 999 calls from a handful of properties across the county.

Another address in Tonbridge was responsible for 467 calls while another in Swanscombe generated 446.

Scale of Post Office closures < Yorkshire Post

Fears have been raised over the sustainability of rural communities as it emerges nearly 40 per cent of all Post Offices in Yorkshire have been shut down since the year 2000.

The Post investigation, based on Freedom of Information requests to the Post Office, found that 614 branches – 39 per cent – have been closed in Yorkshire.

Hospitals attacked by computer hackers < West Briton

Cyber criminals have made “multiple” attacks on Cornwall’s main hospital in the past year with repeated attempts to hold health bosses to ransom by stealing sensitive information.

According to a Freedom of Information (FoI) request, the IT system of the Royal Cornwall Hospitals Trust (RCHT) was once infected ransom-ware, a type of malicious software designed to block access to a computer system until a sum of money is paid.

According to the FoI, the RCHT has experienced “multiple attacks” through cyberspace in the past 12 months.

Finding out more about police dispersal orders < Cambridge News

A fascinating article appeared in the Cambridge News, with a prominent credit to the man behind the FOI, local campaigner Richard Taylor. He sought to find out the background to dispersal order powers police had sought ahead of a game between Cambridge United and Luton.

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