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?


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:


FOI Friday: Full cemeteries, unsolved crimes, snooping coppers and accidents at theme parks


The social care crisis for councils < The Herald

Councils face a mounting crisis with thousands of disabled people unable to meet their bills for social and personal care.

According to figures obtained by The Herald, more than 14,000 people facing bills for personal and social care are in arrears.

Campaigners say the levels struggling to pay now rival those when the organised campaign of Poll Tax non-payment was at its height.

The problem for councils is how they can begin to claw back money from some of the most vulnerable people in society.

The police warnings to people who could be at risk of death < Daily Record

POLICE warned 439 people in Scotland that they were at risk of murder over the last two years.

Figures obtained under freedom of information laws revealed the number of Threat to Life Warning Notices – known as Osman letters.

The warnings are issued to potential targets when police officers discover that someone wants to harm them but do not have enough evidence to make an arrest.

Accidents at theme parks < Burton Mail

A TOTAL of 32 accidents have been logged at Alton Towers in the last three years.

A woman was taken to hospital for checks after hearing her “neck crack” while riding the 60mph Rita ride in May 2013.

Other incidents saw a 13-year-old taken to hospital after hitting her head in the ‘scare maze’ when she was surprised by a performer.

She was “pushed into a wall by friends” after the shock, which resulted in her being taken to hospital with a cut in April 2013.

The Health and Safety Executive released details of 32 incidents logged over the three years, covering accidents and “dangerous occurrences”.

Animals used in experiments < Evening Times, Glasgow

MORE than 55,000 animals have been used in experiments at universities in Glasgow in a year, according to new figures.

The details were revealed in a Freedom of Information request this month which showed the vast proportion were used at Glasgow University in medical testing and research.

The university stressed the animals – including 50,488 rodents, 3,272 fish and 763 birds – were used only when there was no other alternative.

Children in care moved miles away from their communities < Manchester Evening News (via Children’s Society)

Hundreds of children in care in Greater Manchester are being moved to new homes up to 30 miles away from their local communities.

In a report, the Children’s Society, says young people have been left isolated, with some forced to switch schools after being uprooted from family and friends.

More than a fifth of those moved were only told the day before, according to the charity.

Some are moved for their own safety, as they are at risk of abuse or neglect, but in other cases their local councils are unable to find places closer to home.

Out of 5,122 children in care in the region in September 2014, almost 2,000 – nearly four in ten – had been placed outside their local authority area, according to figures released to the charity under Freedom of Information requests.


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: 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: 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: So who is wasting time really? FOI requesters or the Local Government Association?

Remember this FOI press release from the Local Government Association, the publicly-funded lobbying body for local councils in the UK?

FOI campaignI wrote about it back in August, asking why the Local Government Association, which proved itself utterly ineffective at getting the Con/Lib coalition to listen to it when this Government’s spending cuts were being planned in the summer of 2010, was so interested in flagging up extreme examples of FOI use.

There is, of course, a back story here. It involves many councils and councillors – the very people who make up the membership of the LGA – getting the hump at being held to account by FOI.


FOI Friday: Thefts from churches, Christmas cuts, Coventry’s oldest driver and hospital drug thieves

FOIFRIDAYLOGOTax relief for independent schools < Croydon Advertiser

CROYDON’S independent schools received £6.8 million in business rates relief over the last six years.

Figures obtained by the Advertiser through a Freedom of Information request to Croydon Council show the extent to which the town’s private schools receive financial support.

What gets stolen from churches? < WalesOnline

A PULPIT table, urn, cross and artefacts are among hundreds of items cruel thieves have stolen from Welsh churches, we can reveal.

Details obtained from Dyfed-Powys Police show more than 100 offences were recorded in places of worship across the force area between the start of 2011 and the end of last year.

The thefts weren’t just limited to items from inside the churches as small sums of cash as well as patio furniture, a bike and even a fire have all been taken.

Budget cuts hit Christmas < Yorkshire Evening Post

LEEDS HAS been forced to cut spending Christmas lights by hundreds of thousands of pounds in the wake of budget cuts, the Yorkshire Evening Post has found.

A request made under the Freedom of Information Act has revealed that Leeds has reduced the budget for lights and decorations by over £200,000 since 2009. This year it spent £404,890, compared with the £663,834 total five years ago.

The reduction has been put down to increased pressure on local authority budgets which have been imposed since the coalition government came into power in 2010.


Perhaps my favourite FOI story of the year…

As a champion of public sector transparency, it’s perhaps ironic that communities secretary Eric Pickles has found spin from one of his aides unravelling somewhat.

But this is a good example of a government department playing ball with Freedom Of Information … and an example for others to follow?


FOI Friday: Alcoholics refused transplants, council staff chasing lonely hearts, neglected pets and patients in the wrong hospital beds

FOIFRIDAYLOGOAlcoholics refused liver transplants < Birmingham Mail

Eight Birmingham patients denied liver transplants because they could not convince doctors they would stop boozing after the life-saving surgery later died, shock figures have revealed.

In the last five years, 12 patients with alcohol-induced liver disease at University Hospitals Birmingham NHS Foundation Trust were turned down for a new organ as they could not show that they would abstain from alcohol once they left hospital.

Now eight of those patients – two of which were in their 30s – have since died, according to the figures obtained under a Freedom of Information Act request.

Council officers seeking out lonely hearts websites < Chroniclelive

Lonely hearts working on computers at a North council have racked up more than 14,000 hits on dating websites in six months.

Staff at Sunderland City Council made the hits on, Plenty of Fish and OKCupid from staff computers between January and July this year.

According to the data, obtained under the Freedom of Information Act, there were 14,635 hits to the three sites.

The Council said personal use of the internet was permitted providing it took place in an employee’s own time.

Pet neglect in Scotland revealed < Evening Times, Glasgow

Figures released from Police Scotland showed officers investigated 55 cases during 2013 and more than 300 in six years.

The figures, covering the Glasgow area from 2008 to 2013, showed an average of 55 cases each year, and exactly 55 in 2013.

Of the 2013 cases, 36 resulted in court cases and 19 were unresolved. No details of the cases have been revealed but a Scottish SPCA spokeswoman confirmed that one of the most recent to reach court involved a bearded dragon with its tail hacked off by a knife.