Freedom of Information in the news – week ending 25/3/22 – #FOIFriday

This week’s Freedom of Information stories include figures that show the wider extent of police strip-searches on children, as well as the potential impact of the cost of living crisis in unsuitable housing for the homeless and school meal debt.

Children strip-searched

The horrifying case of Child Q, a black 15-year-old girl who was strip searched while at school, is likely to increase scrutiny on not just the Metropolitan Police, where a damning report found racism was a factor, but other forces and their use of similar practices.

Figures from the Met Police show 5,279 children have been searched in the past three years, of which 3,939 (75%) were from ethnically diverse backgrounds. A total of 16 of them were aged between 10 and 12 years old, according to LBC.

This data only covers children who were strip searched after an arrest, including 2,000 for drug offences, meaning the real number of youths strip searched in London will be even higher. The figures wouldn’t include the case of Child Q, for instance, as she was never arrested.

Hush money

A total of 56 settlement agreements have been agreed with staff leaving City Hall since 2017, at a total cost to the London taxpayer of £1,068,757, according to a freedom of information request reported in the Evening Standard.

Of these, 41 staff worked directly or indirectly for Sadiq Khan and 15 for the London Assembly, the cross-party body that scrutinises the mayor and his policies.

The pay-offs are termed “settlement agreements” rather than non-disclosure agreements but prohibit the sharing of “any employment-related issue” that might have resulted in the staff member leaving the Greater London Authority.

Pharmacists under threat

Health workers can come under attack from the public, and pharmacists appear to be no exception. Those working in pharmacies across the country have been threatened with violence, and in some cases weapons, according to FOIs put in by C+D.

In 2021, Humberside Police recorded once incident involving a smashed glass bottle and another where a bike chain was used. In 2019, a member of the public challenged a shoplifter in a Staffordshire pharmacy and was “threatened… with a syringe” while in 2020 a staff member was threatened “with a hammer following a dispute over medication”.

The pandemic saw a rise in crimes, including in Cumbria, two separate incidents of perpetrators “deliberately coughing” over victims – in one case, eight times – causing victims to feel “very upset”, “distressed” and “fearing immediate violence”.

Unsuitable accommodation

Nearly one in five studios and B&Bs used by London boroughs as temporary accommodation have been found to contain serious health and safety hazards, Inside Housing has revealed.

The use of temporary accommodation by councils to house people who are homeless has rocketed in recent years, due to high numbers seeking help and a shortage of permanent social homes.

In response to a Freedom of Information request, Ealing Council said 61 (19%) of the 320 temporary accommodation buildings inspected by London local authorities as part of the Setting the Standard initiative (which involves a central team that inspects nightly paid studio flats and B&B) contained serious category one hazards. Category one hazards are defined as those posing a serious and immediate risk to a person’s health and safety.

School lunch debts

The increasing cost of living may lead to more families struggling with the cost of school meals. Nearly £20,000 of “school meal debt” has been accrued in Shetland, according to Shetland News. Shetland Islands Council’s children’s services director Helen Budge said in response that most outstanding payments tend to be “settled promptly” and that advice is given to any families who may be eligible for free meals.

An investigation by the Scottish Greens has revealed that children and families have accrued more than £1 million of school meal debt. This includes eye-watering debts of £141,528 to North Ayrshire Council, £114,690 to Aberdeen City Council, and £107,847 to South Lanarkshire Council.

Banned from the library

In 2019, an adult was banned from Ulverston library for ‘grossly inappropriate’ behaviour, according to The Mail. After a member of staff challenged a library user around an inappropriate activity, they became ‘extremely verbally abusive’ towards the member of staff and were banned.

Since 2016 a total of five people have banned from libraries in south Cumbria, while in 2019, three adults and one youth were banned from Barrow’s library, all because of anti-social behaviour.  

Cat napping

The number of stolen dogs is a common question sent to police forces, but what about the number of cats being nicked?

Figures from 36 police forces in the UK show there were 560 reports of cat thefts in 2021, up 40pc from 401 in 2020, according to the Eastern Daily Press.

Pedigree kittens can sell for upwards of £500, with Bengals and Maine Coon cats among the most commonly stolen breeds (along with tabbys).

Bikes as décor

Parked up by the bedside table or wedged by the toilet may be your only option for somewhere to store your bike if you live in a tiny home and have no other option for secure storage.

More than 60,000 people in London are on a waiting list for bike storage hangars, according to the BBC. The Clean Air Coalition, which found out the figure using FOI has launched a campaign to find out where Londoners are having to park their bikes, with the hashtag #ThisIsAwkward.

Bikes hangars are secure storage units in residential areas which can be accessed with a key.

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