Freedom of Information in the news – week ending 11/3/22 – #FOIFriday

This week’s Freedom of Information round-up takes in Instagram influencers, eighty-something criminals, pupils with flamethrowers, and overdue library books.

One thing about classic FOIs is that they can be endlessly repeatable and adaptable. Instead of just looking at knives in schools, there’s the possibility of digging into more detail about the other kind of weapons children have tried to use.

They can also be brought up to date to cover new trends – so council spending on celebrities can look at influencers and the cost of living highlights the problem of council tax debt again.

Influencer campaigns

Council’s often have campaigns and events to promote, and influencers are the new celebrities, so why not get a local Instagram personality to promote your high street instead of a soap star to switch on your Christmas lights.

So this FOI is a good new take on an old classic of council spending.

Kirklees Council spent £17,750 on social media influencers to encourage people to get vaccinated and return to high streets in 2021, according to YorkshireLive.

Council tax debts

The rising cost of council tax is an element in the overall cost of living squeeze being felt by families. The £150 rebate promised for those in Bands A to D may help, but council figures revealed under FOI show how many households have already fallen behind on their bills.

Council tax debt in West Dunbartonshire has hit £8m, as cost of living soars, according to the Daily Record, and in 2020/21 alone, almost 15,000 cases in the region were referred to sheriff officers.

In Barrow, around £3.7 million in unpaid council is owed to the council since the beginning of 2019/20, The Mail reports. In that time around 10,000 households have failed to pay the tax, which is required by law.

Danger park

Many areas potentially have a park or similar space with a reputation for crime and anti-social behaviour – FOI could be a way of quantifying how much of a problem there is.

Twelve women have been raped or sexually assaulted in a crime-hit park in the last two years – but not a single suspect has been charged, according to Kent Online. The two rapes and 10 sexual assaults were among 94 crimes recorded in Canterbury’s Dane John Gardens across the two-year-period.

As far back as 2013, the paper has told how the “showpiece gardens have become a magnet for violence, gang crime and drugs”.

Old aged criminals

Hundreds of pensioners were locked up across the West Midlands over the last five years, according to the Birmingham Mail. Some will have been career criminals who carried on offending into old age, while others may have got into trouble for the first time late in life.

More than 600 people aged over 65 have been charged with offences by West Midlands Police since 2017 – with the oldest to be taken into custody at the ripe old age of 87. Some 42 other octogenarians also found themselves in trouble with the law.

Armed school pupils

Asking police for the number of reports of knives in schools often yields information about incidents they’ve dealt with, however, this FOI seems to look for information from the Local Education Authority side, as it covers the reasons why pupils have been suspended or expelled.

Two pupils were kicked out of school for trying to make a DIY flamethrower out of an aerosol can, according to the Scottish Sun. A schoolgirl turned her lipstick into a Killing Eve-style knife — attaching a blade to the end and threatening another pupil, and others were expelled over weapons including knuckle-dusters and a truncheon.

The information in the story isn’t dated and appears to potentially be quite old (possibly a re-write of a 2020 story), so post-lockdown return to school may have seen more incidents.

E-scooters on fire (again)

Last week covered an FOI looking at the number of e-scooters that have caught (or being set on) fire, and the risk is that when they catch light, fires spread and become more serious.

The BBC reported that a warehouse in Bristol where 200 e-scooters were damaged in a fire on New Year’s Day was not fitted with fire alarms or smoke detectors and contained just one fire extinguisher.

A report ruled the blaze was accidental and caused by batteries overcharging or tangled extension cords overheating.

This is a useful example of how FOI can be used to get more information about incidents such as major fires, and the causes and issues surrounding them.

Online hate messages

Cybercrime detectives in Humberside say the damage caused by online abuse “should not be underestimated”, as figures reveal a disturbing five-fold rise in reports of hateful messages in as many years.

A Hull Live investigation found Humberside Police received 4,822 reports of malicious communications in 2021 – up from 991 in 2016.

Late library books

The number of unreturned books from Warrington’s libraries has risen tenfold within the space of a year, according to the Warrington Guardian.

In 2020, due to the impact of the pandemic which forced the closure of libraries, only 942 books issued had not been returned on time. However, in 2021, this soared to 9,964.

A new book amnesty means that borrowers can return overdue books to any library in the town without fear of fees – no matter how long they have been on loan for.

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