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