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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FOI FRIDAY: Asbestos, Facebook, police cells and sham marriages


10 good examples of FOI in action from the local, regional and national media:

1. Asbestos found at public buildings – Milford Mercury

Asbestos, known as the silent killer, is regularly the subject of health and safety campaigns – so an FOI which reveals that the majority of council buildings in an area contained asbestos, although often in non-dangerous uses, has the potential to make waves.

2. Prisoners communicating by Facebook – Yorkshire Evening Post

I’ve seen a few stories about those behind bars using Facebook to taunt victims, witnesses and so on – but this is the first time I’ve seen FOI used to find out how many Facebook accounts have been investigated by prison authorities.

3. Health and safety deaths and injuries in the workplace – Bradford Telegraph and Argus

A good example of why ‘open data’ will never give the public as much power as the right to ask for information. This FOI asked how many deaths in the workplace had been recorded by the Health and Safety Executive in the Bradford area, and the number of injuries recorded. The amount of detail per case varied.

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FOI FRIDAY: Big benefit claims, football ground safety, spending on temps and how much headteachers earn


1. School-based hate crimes investigated by the police < < < Western Morning News

Sure, we’ve seen FOI requests about the number of reports of racism recorded by schools or local authorities – but this is the first time I’ve seen a figure for the number of times police have been called in to investigate racism in schools. That’s what the Western Morning News uncovered.

2. Council spending at the footie < < < Liverpool ECHO

Wirral Council has spent more than £1m sponsoring football team Tranmere Rovers over the last decade, according to information released under Freedom of Information laws to the Liverpool Echo. I suspect a lot of councils have spent a fair bit over the years – Lancashire County Council’s logo has been almost ever-present at Preston North End – but I suppose it depends on what the money was spent on which makes or breaks the story.

3. Council spending on temps doubles < < < East Anglian Daily Times

Hmmm. A one-off or something symptomatic of redundancies in local government? The EADT reports how spending on temps has doubled at one local council in the last year.

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FOI Friday: Dirty hospitals, re-employed redundant council workers, lost dogs and drug warrants

A fortnightly round-up of FOI-based stories which could be followed up anywhere…

The secret past of would-be teachers < < < Sunday Sun

POSSESSING explosives, being drunk while in charge of a child, death by reckless driving and indecent assault on a girl . . these are just some of the serious criminal convictions would-be teachers in the North have under their belt.

Hundreds of potential teachers have been applying for classroom positions across the region despite holding a range of serious criminal convictions, the Sunday Sun can reveal.

Information released by the Criminal Records Bureau (CRB), after the Sunday Sun made a Freedom of Information Act request, revealed the scale of convictions clocked up by teachers applying for positions in the North.

Childhood drugs overdoses < < < Sunderland Echo

A SIX-YEAR-OLD was rushed to Sunderland Royal Hospital after overdosing on antidepressants.

The shocking revelation comes as new figures show three people a day are admitted to the city’s hospital after taking a drug overdose.

A total of 2,999 people were taken to A&E after overdosing on prescribed or non-prescribed medicine and drugs from December 2008 to December 2011.

The youngest was a six-year-old. A further five 12-year-olds were admitted after overdosing on painkillers, penicillin and anti-inflammatory drugs.

More council compensation claims < < < Sunday Mercury

A COUNCIL grave digger has been awarded £65,000 compensation – after he fell into a burial plot he was preparing.

The cemetery worker received the payout from Birmingham City Council (BCC) after he hurt his right knee in the incident.

He is one of several local authority employees who have claimed compensation after being injured at work.

Click here to find out more!In another case a school worker was handed £100,000 after slipping on food in a dinner hall.

FOI Friday: Bad living conditions, school repair backlogs, teen drug dealers and the return of schoolyard compo


Revealing the findings of ‘neighbourhood renewal assessments’ – Stoke Sentinel

Here’s one which could run and run across the country. The Stoke Sentinel reports on the findings of a council ‘neighbourhood renewal assessment’ – the likes of which are carried out by councils all over the place.

A NEW report has painted a sobering picture of just how bad living conditions have become in the Portland Street area.

The report, released under the Freedom of Information Act, shows how much conditions have deteriorated at some of the houses.

It is based on surveys carried out at 274 properties, a mixture of private rented and owner-occupied homes, as part of the council’s Neighbourhood Renewal Assessment.

Repairs backlogs at schools – Coventry Telegraph

WARWICKSHIRE schools have a staggering £83 million backlog of repairs.

Warwickshire County Council bosses estimated the cost of getting all the county’s schools up to a reasonable standard of repair.

The figures were uncovered by the Telegraph under the Freedom of Information Act.

The cost of clearing up after police warrants – South Wales Evening Post

I think there’s a better story in here other than the one the South Wales Evening Post has gone with. It reports on the £5k in compensation the police has paid out for repairs to properties which were damaged during ‘negative warrants’ – ie warrants which were executed but didn’t lead to an arrest or seizure of goods. That’s a good story – but looking at the breakdown of negative v positive warrants, almost half were negative. A better story?

120 ‘foreign objects’ removed from patients in Lincolnshire – Boston Standard

Here’s a curious story. FOI led to the Boston Standard to find out that 120 people had ‘foreign bodies’ removed from them in hospital, yet the hospital couldn’t say what those objects were. The Standard used information from elsewhere in the country to talk about the sorts of objects which could be involved.

Teenage drug dealers – Teesside Evening Gazette

SUSPECTED child drug dealers as young as 15 were among those arrested on Teesside, new figures have revealed.

Officers from Cleveland Police arrested 17 suspected child drug dealers last year.

Five were girls held over claims they were dealing cannabis, and six of the boys, including two 15-year-olds, were risking lengthy prison sentences after allegedly dealing in Class A drugs.

The findings were obtained under the Freedom of Information Act.

Escapes from mental health units – Wigan Evening Post

10% of people admitted to mental health units in Wigan escape, according to the Wigan Evening Post.

Cost of overseas patients not paying up – Scarborough Evening News

This story stands out more because of the level of detail released than anything else:

SCARBOROUGH’S NHS Trust is owed more than £30,000 in hospital bills, racked up by overseas patients not entitled to free treatment.

The figures, obtained via a Freedom of Information request to Scarborough and North East Yorkshire Healthcare NHS Trust, show that since February 2009, £33,229.41 has either been written off or is currently being chased by the Trust.

The numbers include £10,297 that the trust is still chasing from a Syrian patient who underwent treatment in May 2010.

The highest amount written off was for £5,701, owed to them from a Thai patient who underwent treatment in August and September of 2009.

The books and CDs you aren’t borrowing from the library – Sunday Sun

Tomes such as Old Scottish Clockmakers 1453-1850 and Agrarian History of England and Wales Volume 5 have lined library shelves untouched for decades.

But surprisingly some popular names were also on our list, compiled from Freedom of Information requests by the Sunday Sun.

When it comes to music, in Northumberland, four copies of Coldplay’s album X&Y were only borrowed once last year, the same number as The Beatles’ Yellow Submarine.

The return of an old favourite: Schoolyard payouts – Leicester Mercury

A schoolgirl who was burnt when baked beans were spilled on her could be in line for a council pay-out of up to £12,000.

The hot food was spilled on the youngster’s neck at a county council-run school. The authority has now set aside thousands of pounds to cover potential compensation and legal costs.

The incident is one of 63 compensation claims made for injuries sustained at county schools during the past four years, according to new figures. But, of the 29 cases dealt with to date, just five have resulted in a compensation pay-out.

The cost of  council sick pay – Birmingham Post

Birmingham City Council spent £35 million on sick pay for staff last year.

And new figures have revealed employees in some departments are taking more than double the national average of days off ill.

The authority spent £34,856,713 on sick pay between January and December last year, according to figures obtained under the Freedom of Information Act.

The council did not reveal the bill for paying agency staff to cover absences, meaning the total cost will be even higher.

FOI Friday: Council workers earning less than a living wage, mental health wards and publicly-funded competitions

1. The impact of the closure of mental health wards -Burnley Express

This FOI from the Burnley Express really impressed me because it illustrates brilliantly how FOI can be used to paint a fuller picture than an organisation would otherwise seek to reveal. Lancashire Care NHS Trust, the mental health trust for Lancashire, plans to end all in-patient mental health care at Burnley General Hospital. Some patients will be moved to Preston – around a 60 to 70 mile round trip – and in 2014, dementia care will move to a site near Blackpool, almost a 100-mile round trip.

The trust argues it is about improving services for patients – but how many patients will be affected? That was the nub of the Express FOI, which is well explained in the article because it does what few FOI articles do – revealing what questions they asked before going into the answers.

Figures for the final six months of last year show the three wards in Burnley and the Paediatric Intensive Care Unit were very busy. The PICU ward was 91.2% full, two of the others were at full or over full, at 99% and 102%, and the third was 56% full.

According to the Trust, 472 teenagers have been admitted to the PICU ward in the last five years. 489 patients were admitted with dementia.

The new Blackpool development, a car boot sale site at Wyndyke Farm, off Preston New Road, is expected to open in 2014. Its 30 dementia and 16 PICU beds will serve the whole of Lancashire. The Trust says it is reducing dementia care in hospital because of developments in community services.

The numbers rather suggest that there won’t be enough beds, and those that there are will be up to 50 miles away. The numbers from the FOI request show, if nothing else, that there’s no numerical reason for closing the wards. Change for change sake?

2. Council’s dog poo crackdown is well, you know – Kidderminster Shuttle

Here’s a good example of FOI enabling residents to hold a council to account. The Kidderminster Shuttle probably covered the launch of the local council’s crackdown on dog poo – I imagine it warranted a press release. Shame, then, that a year on, and FOI reveals little action materialised.

3. Illegal gypsy sites – Burton Mail

When an illegal gypsy camp appears near someone’s house, the council is normal the first place that person calls for help. The Burton Mail used FOI to find out how many such camps had been reported in the last three years in their area – almost 100.

4. The impact of new parking rules – Birmingham Post

Parking tickets are often the subject of FOI requests – but here’s a different take on how to do it. The Birmingham Post used FOI to find out how many more tickets had been issued following the extension of parking rules to cover evenings and Sundays. The number of tickets issued has risen 74% – a nice little earner some might say.

5. Police cuts confirmed – Halifax Courier

The coalition government promised that frontline police officers would not be cut as police budgets were reduced. That doesn’t appear to be the case in Calderdale, where the Halifax Courier used FOI to reveal where the cuts were falling.

6. Council competitions – Wales on Sunday

I’ve seen loads of councils runs competitions with prizes and thought to myself  ‘that’s probably a waste of money’ but I’ve never thought of suggesting it as an FOI and aggregating the results though. Wales On Sunday have though – and it does ask some questions.

7. Council workers living under the breadline – Wigan Evening Post

Here’s a clever idea from the Wigan Evening Post  – start asking local authorities how many members of staff earn less than the Living Wage – a figure calculated by the the Living Wage Unit to reflect the actual cost of living, rather than just the minimum wage. At Wigan Council, one in five earn less than £7.20.

8. Car crime by ward – Cambridge News

Among the many FOI stories you see about crime stats, it’s not often you come across one about car crime, but this article from the Cambridge News is worth a look – it breaks car crime down by ward. Is car crime important? Probably to those in the hotspot area, it is.

9. Missile-throwing yobs – Nottingham Post

I don’t normally include FOI stories which begin life on a press release, but this one was particularly well-timed from Autoglass, the windscreen repair people. It lists the number of missile attacks on cars by police force, timely given the spate of concrete throwing which has made the front pages.

10. How good are councils as employers? – Bradford Telegraph and Argus

There are 67 cases before or recently dealt with by employment tribunal involving Bradford Council staff. Two resulted in combined payouts of £100,000. A sign of a good employer or a bad one? The number being settled out of court suggests we’ll never know.