Freedom Of Information

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:

IMG_1959 (1)

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.


FOI Friday: Booze and benefits, not-so-free Christmas parking, councils fining for spitting and more…


Council makes parking money despite offering free parking < Eastern Daily Press

North Norfolk District Council has defended its publicity attempts after it emerged that it collected more than £3,600 in its pay-and-display machines during a “free parking” weekend.

The Conservative-run council, which has pledged to donate the sum to local foodbanks, has been criticised by the North Norfolk Labour Party which said motorists had been confused over the Christmas weekend and the sum collected made a mockery of the scheme.

The people claiming benefits because of booze (Sheffield Star)

Hundreds of people in Doncaster are claiming disability benefits because they drink too much alcohol.

A total of 240 people in the borough claimed one of several forms of disability benefit – and cited alcohol misuse as the main reason, according to Government figures.

The figures represent one claimant in 61 in the borough.

The revelation comes after it was revealed that one man had been given extra cash by Doncaster Council to help pay for his drinking.

Children involved in police stop and searches < Greenock Telegraph

Figures released under Freedom of Information laws reveal the scale of the controversial Police Scotland policy in the area.

During 2014 a total of 68 children aged 12 and under were stopped and searched by officers.

Ten were girls and 58 were boys, including the nine-year-old — the youngest person in the area to be searched.

A further 2,190 13 to 16-year-olds were also searched by officers last year.

… and in Northampton too (Northampton Chronicle & Echo)

Police officers used their stop and search powers on a 10 year old, new figures reveal.

A Freedom of information request by the Chronicle & Echo has revealed that a 10 year old and two 11 year olds were stopped on separate occasions in 2013 and 2014, all on suspicion of having stolen goods.


FOI Friday: Roadworks hell, hidden art, naughty nurses and bedblocking patients


Plagues of roadworks < Get Surrey

Dismay has been expressed over a ‘plague’ of roadworks on a stretch between Bramley and Guildford in the past three years.

Information obtained under the Freedom of Information Act revealed that more than 860 individual projects were carried out on the A281 from 2012 to 2014 – an average of 1.3 per day.

The majority of work was carried out in Bramley, with 477 roadworks in the village, with the remainder, 388, on the road through Shalford.

Broken down by year, there was disruption on the Shalford stretch for 160 days in 2012, a drop to 68 days in 2013 and rising to 160 last year.

Hidden Art < South Wales Argus

JUST two per cent of the almost 5,000 pieces in the fine art collection at Newport Museum and Art Gallery is on display, an Argus Freedom of Information Act request reveals.

The museum and art gallery building, which is at risk of closure in Newport City Council’s 2015/16 budget proposals, has 98 works of fine art on display compared to around 4,800 pieces in storage.


FOI Friday: Post office closures, 653 ambulance visits to one house, the cost per fan of policing football and more…


Ambulance called to one house over 600 times in one year < Birmingham Mail

An MP is demanding tougher action against bogus 999 callers after shock figures revealed ambulance crews were sent to one Birmingham address 653 times in 12 months.

Selly Oak MP Steve McCabe plans to raise the issue in parliament after statistics showed 30 Midland addresses were responsible for almost 5,000 emergency calls last year.

The figures from West Midlands Ambulance Service show under-pressure paramedics were called out an average of 13 times a day to the homes.

In one case an address in the Shard End area of Birmingham was visited 653 times – an average of almost twice a day – in the last 12 months.

Post office closures by stealth? < ChroniceleLive

The Post Office today stands accused of cutting down its network “by stealth” as an investigation reveals 17 North East branches have been “temporarily closed” for more than a year.

A Freedom Of Information probe has uncovered huge gaps in the region’s Post Office service, with seven out of a total of 20 branches marked as ‘closed temporarily’, having actually been shut for more than five years.

The Communication Workers’ Union has branded the situation “ridiculous” and claimed Post Office chiefs are letting down communities in the region who rely on their local branch.