Freedom of Information in the news – week ending 14/1/22 – #FOIFriday

A new year, and a potential opportunity to start doing things differently.

If doing journalism differently this year is one of the things you’re hoping to change, then I’m planning lots of resources to help.

David Higgerson’s blog previously had a FOI Friday feature, collecting together stories from local and regional newspapers that have been based on responses to FOI requests (it’s where many of the ideas on the list come from). The FOI Directory also used to publish examples of stories that used FOI.

However, neither of these have been updated in a while, and as useful as previous examples can be, tracking more recent requests and subsequent stories feels like a useful resource. The original idea in both cases was to offer ideas that could be replicated, often in other locations, based on requests that had successfully led to stories.

Reports of spiking on the rise

Back in September/October, there were reports of a spate of reports of drink and needle spiking in nightclubs as students returned to university. FOI requests are a way of finding out how many cases were reported in local areas, and how numbers have changed in recent year, including whether there was an increase in recent months.

The Argus found there had been 108 crimes recorded by Sussex Police between January and October last year, an increase from previous years. The request also asked for breakdowns of where the crimes occurred in Sussex and the gender of the victim, along with the outcomes for the report (with few suspects being charged).

Serious incidents in maternity units

Channel 4 used FOI to find out that dozens of deaths and stillbirths at its maternity units have cost hospital trust £103m in damages over the past decade.

The figures follow CQC warnings to the trust about serious incidents in its maternity units in recent years, and comes after reports of maternity care failings at units across the country.

Covid in the classroom

High case rates often translate to high numbers of cases in schools. While FOI may not be the best method for obtaining data about positive tests by pupils – as the 20 day time limit can mean a delay between requesting and receiving information – it may be the only way to get data on how many cases schools have reported.

Edinburgh Live obtained a list of schools that had infections during the the autumn term, and how long outbreaks lasted, potentially giving an idea of how hard different schools have been impacted by absences and potential disruption.

Confiscated e-scooters

With e-scooters tipped as a potentially popular but ill-advised Christmas present (as using them on public roads is illegal unless you’re using a rental one in one of the trial areas), they may become an increasingly common sight, and a headache for police, pedestrians and other road users.

Police in Dorset seized and disposed of 47 e-scooters last year, up from five in 2020, according to the Bournemouth Echo.

The Department for Transport has produced analysis on road accidents involving e-scooters – most of those injured, including all of those killed, were e-scooter users, with pedestrians and cyclists the next most likely to be injured in the collisions.

Supermarket sweep

Food Hygiene ratings are always a popular topic – people generally want to know if their favourite takeaway has a lax attitude to safe food storage. While the individual ratings are easily available, they often lack detail about why a business has received the rating it has.

Freedom of Information can be a way to access more information from the report itself. That could provide details about why the business was inspected and what inspectors found – such as in this report obtained by the Metro, which shows a branch of Tesco was investigated over a complaint about a gnawed bag of popcorn, and while no evidence of pests was found, the store was given a rating of 2 due to a very poor standard of cleaning throughout the store.

However, a report unearthed by Teesside Live did show inspectors had found mouse “droppings” behind fridges, freezers – and even inside the cupboards – at a Fish and Chip shop in Middlesbrough, leading to the takeaway being given a zero rating.

Traffic fines

Where and why people have been fined for failing to obey traffic regulations, and how much it’s cost them is a classic FOI – as people are keen to find out where cameras are and how many people are getting caught by them (not least drivers).

Havering drivers have been fined £12 million in six years, according to the Romford Recorder, after getting caught by the borough’s 32 traffic cameras, which monitor bus lanes, one-way traffic and right or left turns.

Should know their limits

A variation on drivers getting caught doing something they shouldn’t is council vehicles getting caught breaking the council-implemented speed limit.

As councillors in the Scottish Borders voted to make 20mph zones permanent, an FOI reported in the Border Telegraph showed a total of 78 council vehicles fitted with trackers had broken the 20mph speed restrictions in November during the trial.

Unenforced by-laws

FOI requests can be a way of checking whether people’s concerns are being met with action.

The Friends of the New Forest ran a survey last autumn aimed at raising awareness of Forest by-laws, and received reports of littering, dog mess, cyclists off-tracks, cars parked where they shouldn’t and livestock attacked by dogs, according to reports in the Daily Echo.

However, an FOI request by the organisation showed Forestry England had carried out no formal investigations or prosecutions of by-law breaches since at least 2015.

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