FOI Friday: Cannabis, university spending, race crimes at the football and asbestos in council buildings

FOIFRIDAYLOGOUnpaid court fines tops £4million – Bedfordshire On Sunday

MORE than £4 million in court fines is owed to courts in Bedfordshire, a Freedom of Information request has revealed.

The figures, released by Her Majesty’s Courts & Tribunals Service (HMCTS), show that last September the amount of fines owed to the county’s courts stood at £4,286,800.

The criminal with 145 crimes to his names – Newcastle Journal

A ONE-MAN crime wave racked up 145 offences in two years, re-offending figures have revealed.

The string of crimes makes the 20-year-old male from Durham the region’s most prolific offender.

He was closely followed by a 38-year-old female and a 45-year-old male who committed 130 crimes each between January 1, 2011, to December 31, 2012, say Durham Constabulary.

In total, the top nine offenders together were responsible for 702 crimes across the force area.

Freedom of Information requests to North East police forces revealed just 19 criminals were behind more than a thousand crimes in the region over the last two years.

1000 council buildings containing Asbestos – North Wales Daily Post

SCHOOLS, leisure centres and public toilets are among more than 1,000 council-owned buildings in North Wales which contain asbestos.

A Freedom of Information request by the Daily Post has revealed that all types of the dangerous substance which is now illegal to use – are found in buildings across the region including the most hazardous material, crocidolite.

The figures showed Gwynedd to have the highest number of buildings containing asbestos with 409 in total, which included Arfon Leisure Centre in Caernarfon, Bangor Swimming Pool and Hafod Y Gest care home in Porthmadog.

Pauper funeral rise in Plymouth – Plymouth  Herald

ALMOST 100 people in Plymouth have been buried in so-called ‘paupers’ graves’.

The depressing statistic paints a harrowing picture of people in the community dying penniless and in isolation.

The figures on state-funded funerals were released to The Herald through the Freedom of Information Act.

But the reality could be much worse, since people who die in hospital are the responsibility of Plymouth Hospitals Trust.

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Proof that understanding how to bring a story to life is essential for data journalism

The Journal, Newcastle

I’m sure we’ve all seen stories about the rising number of children living in poverty. One of the challenges for regional newspapers is to make a story like this compelling – after all, it’s an issue which many might sympathise with, but may not want to read about. That’s why I think this front page from the Journal in Newcastle is so great … it makes a hard-hitting issue a compelling purchase because it cuts past the numbers to what it really means for those involved.

For data journalists, or journalists who use data to underpin stories, it’s a great example of how data is the start of the story…





Gallery: How the newspapers which knew Gary Speed best covered his death

The death of Gary Speed was one of those news stories which, when read first on Twitter, always makes me think: “I need to see that several more times from people I trust before I believe it.” Confirmation followed soon after.

As is increasingly the case on social networks, the actual news was soon superceded by speculation about what happened, while broadcast news and news websites kept – largely – to the facts and went heavily on tributes.

But Monday morning brought another aspect to the coverage – content from some of the journalists who knew him best – regional journalists who covered the clubs he played for and, latterly, managed.

As I tend to do from time to time on this blog, here’s a round-up of the front page from the areas with the closest connection to Speed the player and Speed the manager:

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FOI Friday: Strange weapons, cost of a big fire, prison menus and revisiting attacks at hospitals

Newcastle Evening Chronicle: Reports compiled about big fire show concerns over safety equipment

EFFORTS to fight a giant blaze were hit by concerns over safety equipment.

Internal fire service documents seen by the Chronicle reveal the fire caused damage to the neck straps on firefighters’ breathing masks that did not meet required standards.

The fault was raised in a report compiled by chiefs and an investigation was recommended.

The documents, obtained under the Freedom of Information Act, also reveal how the cost of the operation exceeded £50,000.

A VIOLIN case, a potato peeler and a television are among a haul of unusual weapons seized on Edinburgh’s streets, it emerged today.

Details released under the Freedom of Information Act show police have confiscated hundreds of unusual items which have been used in attacks or deemed offensive weapons.

The haul also includes a pizza shovel, a quill pen and a pool ball in a sock.

Newcastle Journal: £4million seized back from criminals in North East

MORE than £4m was seized from North East criminals in just two years as police used court powers to strip them of their ill-gotten gains.

Criminals on Tyneside and in Northumberland paid back nearly £700,000 in cash while, following examinations by forensic accountants, fraudsters have also had to pay nearly £2.5m to cover the cost of their assets.

Financial investigators calculated the true value of their benefits to determine exactly what they owed from their businesses.

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FOI FRIDAY: Secret dossiers, missing prisoners, hate crimes and council redundancies


1. Secret dossiers

There’s a lot of focus on FOI as a tool to get data out of authorities at the moment, so I thought it was worth kicking off this week with a great example of what you get when you ask councils for full documents on things.

Using FOI, the Leicester Mercury got hold of a dossier compiled by council officials who were worried about the behaviour of the Lord Mayor of Leicester – council officers even went as far as to take discreet photographs of him.

2. Hate crimes against disabled people

When you think of ‘hate crimes’ you tend to think of crimes based on race or sexuality. The East Anglian Daily Times reports on a rise in hate crimes committed against the disabled – using figures obtained under FOI.

3. Escapees from hospital

The value of FOI as a tool for keeping tabs on places long after things have gone wrong is demonstrated in this FOI from the Manchester Evening News. In 2006, a convicted killer who was being treated in a mental hospital went on the run and subsequently committed a rape.

In 2007, the hospital’s security was described as lax. The MEN, through FOI, has discovered a further 31 prisoners held under the Mental Health Act have subsequently escaped.

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FOI FRIDAY: 10 things we’ve learnt this week thanks to the Freedom of Information Act

The Alcoholic baby

Starting this week with the Journal in Newcastle, which used FOI to find out the extent of alcohol-related problems suffered by children admitted to hospital:

Under the Freedom of Information Act, The Journal asked North East health trusts for details of children aged between 0 and 17 who were found to have consumed alcohol when they were treated in hospital over the last five years.

The answer was almost 1,800 – including 22 under 10 and one less than 1.

Stressed police

Almost 4,000 policing days were lost in North Wales last year due to depression and stress, according to  figures obtained by the Daily Post.

The Welsh Assembly’s office in Sydney

A brilliant tale which appears to have started life on the letters page of the Shropshire Star. A reader used FOI to find out where the Welsh Assembly had offices. There are 72 in Wales, 16 of which are in Cardiff – plus plenty abroad too. I remember Lancashire County Council used to have an office in Brussels, but this FOI could have legs for all manner of authorities – not least the soon to be departed regional development agencies.

The NHS and obese people

Is the NHS failing the morbidly obese? The South Wales Echo found out, using FOI, that just one in 10 people referred to hospitals for weight loss treatment were paid for by the NHS. In many cases, people had resorted to taking out loans to cover the treatment. There’s a moral argument in here as well – but also a good extraction of data via FOI.

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FOI Friday: 10 things we’ve learnt thanks to the Freedom of Information Act this week

1. Schooling ‘on the cheap’

Schools are bound by the Freedom of Information Act,  but have 40 days to reply. That can make FOI-ing schools a bit of a challenge, but the results can pay off, as demonstrated by the Norwich Evening News this week. It found that high schools in Norwich are employing a growing army of unqualified staff to look after lessons.

Under an agreement on the use of  ‘cover supervisors’ in schools, the supervisors are only supposed to hand out lesson plans prepared by teachers, and to maintain order. They should also not take classes for more than three consecutive days. But asking questions of schools under FOI, the News found 16 admitted they had used the staff in such a way in 2008/9 – with a total of 143 occasions where the three-day limit was passed. Six said they could not access the information and 11 failed to answer the request.

2. The North East rail fiasco

The Journal reported on the nationalisation of the East Coast mainline this week. The Tories used FOI to get hold of correspondence between National Express, the operator, and the Government about its financial plight. The Tories suggest the documents show the government was aware of financial problems long before they became public. It looks as though FOI may be a key way of getting info out of government for the opposition parties ahead of a general election – although it does beg the question as to why politicians have to resort to FOI at all.

3. Run down universities

The Edinburgh Evening News reports on an FOI request to the Higher Education Funding Council for England, which  compiled a database on the state of buildings owned by universities. At one Edinburgh university, surveyors judged more than 40 per cent of the university’s lecture theatres, libraries and other non-residential buildings as “inoperable” and “posing a serious risk of major failure and breakdown”.

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