freedom of information

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.

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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.

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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.

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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?

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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 Match.com, 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.

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The council which called the police after someone sent ‘too many FOIs’

If you’re a journalist, ask yourself this question: How frequently do you send FOI requests? Once a month? Twice a month? Four times a month?

Would 25 in eight months – so between three or four a month – seem excessive? Not to me it doesn’t.

But for the clerk at Arlesey Town Council, Elsie Hare, not only was it was excessive to receive 25 FOI requests from local resident – and therefore contributor to her salary – Mark Newbury, that she rang the police.

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The tax-payer funded lobbying group which is taking up council time and money by asking for examples of FOI requests which take up time and money. Really.

foiUpdated: The Local Government Association have been in touch to say they did not send the email asking for information, but that the email was prompted by their query to the Lawyers in Local Government group on the back of suggestions from some councils about FOI volumes becoming problematic.

An interesting press release landed in my inbox tonight from the Campaign for Freedom of Information, a wonderful group which has seen off many threats to FOI and was instrumental to it being enacted in the first place:

A survey of local councils, aimed at gathering information to push for restrictions to the Freedom of Information (FOI) Act has been criticised by the Campaign for Freedom of Information. The Local Government Association (LGA) has written privately to councils saying it is thinking of calling for changes to the Act and asking them to supply details of “problems” caused by it.
The email, circulated last month, says the LGA is “considering pressing the Government again for changes to the FOI legislation, having regard to the cost and time in handling FOI requests”. It says it is particularly concerned about “the use of the FOI process by researchers and campaigners for their benefit at our expense” and asks for statistics on the proportion of requests made by “media, campaigning bodies, commercial or business bodies undertaking their own research” and the time and cost of dealing with “research type” FOI requests.

The LGA says the email to councils didn’t come from them, but from Lawyers in Local Government, which the LGA had spoken to about concerns among a small number of councils that FOI was being used increasingly by commercial organisations. They’ve asked me to point out they didn’t send the email to the councils involved – which I’m happy to do.

To me, this effectively means is a tax-payer funded organisation – the LGA, despite its official sounding name, is little more than a lobbying group for councils, funded by millions of pounds worth of subscriptions paid by councils – is proactively seeking to restrict use of one of the few tools available to the public to hold its members to account. The LGA says it is just seeking views at the moment.

If this was a survey which sought views in general, it would be different. But it’s very clear from the tone of the email that what we have here is someone fishing for tales of woe about FOI.

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FOI Friday: Air gun attacks, stressed out students, pauper funerals and troubled families

FOIFRIDAYLOGO

Bedroom tax rent arrears < Wolverhampton Express and Star

Out of 3,803 Sandwell people affected by the removal of the Government’s spare room subsidy, 2,432 have now fallen into rent arrears.

But the Labour-led council has not yet evicted anyone for falling into arrears as a result of what has become widely known as the bedroom tax.

The numbers of people in arrears and affected by the policy were revealed under the Freedom of Information Act after a request by a member of the public.

Troubled families < Brighton Argus

Nearly 1,000 problem families have been identified in Brighton and Hove since the launch of a Government scheme nearly two years ago.

The Troubled Families programme was launched as part of a scheme to get children off the streets and to help families get back into work.

According to a Freedom of Information request, the city council has identified 963 “troubled families” in Brighton and Hove and has so far “turned around” 317 of these.

Prisoners in your area < Daily Post

More than a third of all North Wales prisoners are from a single county, latest figures reveal.

There are a total of 857 from the region behind bars at prisons in England and Wales – 308 of which originate  from Flintshire.

The county also has the third highest number in Wales  – beaten only by Cardiff and Swansea.

The next highest in North Wales is Gwynedd with 163 prisoners followed by Wrexham (129), Conwy (118), Denbighshire (90) and Anglesey (49).

The figures, based on data up to December 31 last year, have been released following a Freedom of Information request to the Ministry of Justice.

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FOI Friday: Suspects released by mistake, crimes in hospitals, careless coppers and big pay outs for teachers

FOIFRIDAYLOGOWrongly-released offenders < Manchester Evening News

A sex offender, violent thugs and burglars are among a long list of charged suspects released without trial because of blunders by Greater Manchester Police.

Dozens of charged suspects walked free over the last six years before they reached trial – with more this year than any of the previous five – after officers breached their own rules.

Officers must follow the Police and Criminal Evidence Act (PACE) after making an arrest – a code they are taught during their basic training.

PACE covers police powers and procedures, including instructions on how to treat suspects once they have been charged with an offence.

But on 55 occasions, Greater Manchester Police (GMP) officers failed to follow PACE, leading to a suspected sex offender, 15 alleged violent thugs, and 39 other would-be criminals getting off without a trial between 2008 and 2013.

Universities disclosing student info to police < Carlisle News and Star

The University of Cumbria has passed on the personal details of more than 20 students to police over the last three academic years, new figures reveal.

The latest available information shows that the university disclosed details of 25 of its students to officers carrying out formal investigations between 2010 and 2013.

Four related to investigations relating to theft or damage, eight for sexual or violent crimes and 10 where a student was a potential witness or victim of crime.

Three did not have sufficient details to be categorised, according to a Freedom of Information request.

Crimes in hospitals < Brighton Argus

Assaults, racial abuse, criminal damage and arson are among scores of crimes reported at hospitals across Sussex.

A Freedom of Information request has revealed Sussex Police were called to investigate 241 incidents in one year.

Other allegations included sexual assault and possession of a weapon.

The most common call outs were for theft, public order offences and common assault.

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