Freedom of Information in the news – week ending 8/4/22 – #FOIFriday

This week’s potential Freedom of Information ideas include a look into child neglect cases, the potential impact of the pandemic on mental health, and the cost (and effectiveness) of Covid jab campaigns.

There’s also a good showing by FOIs from the Scottish Conservatives in the same week OpenDemocracy sent an open letter to the new Information Commissioner telling him he must do more to hold (Conservative) ministers and departments accountable.

Children at risk

A staggering 7,616 child cruelty or neglect offences were reported to West Midlands Police as the pandemic raged on through 2021. That was a nine per cent hike on the year before, according to Birmingham Live.

The majority of the offences involved children between the ages of three and 15, though figures include teenage victims up to the age of 17, as well as 370 cases involving babies under the age of one.

The Freedom of Information request also revealed more details about some of the crimes reported – Concerned callers mainly reported general ‘cruelty to and neglect of children offences’, but allowing a child or young person to be in a brothel featured four times on the police logs, while allowing youngsters under 16 to ‘take part in performances endangering life or limb’ accounted for another two.

Teachers’ mental health

Teachers took nearly 20,000 days off in three years in Dundee due to mental-health issues, the Daily Record reveals. The absences cost the city council more than £600k in sick leave during that period.

Figures for healthcare workers showed a higher proportion of days lost due to stress and anxiety during the pandemic, so this may well be the case for other keyworkers.

The story, which is based on a Freedom of Information request by the Scottish Conservatives (always much more enthusiastic about FOI when they’re not in Government) says the figures show an “increase in demand” on those who work in the education sector, especially during the pandemic that produced its own specific challenges. However, the figure does include annual figures to show what this looks like (the problem of reporting on someone else’s FOI instead of doing you’re own.

Police dog seizures

Almost £60,000 has been spent on kennelling and vet bills for dogs seized by Dorset Police over the past three years, the Dorset Echo has revealed. Over the past three years a total of 36 dogs were seized of which 13 were disposed or euthanised by the force.

A spokeswoman for Dorset Police said: “A dog is euthanised either by one of the following reasons: an instruction from the court, the owner is having a dog euthanised and asked for police assistance or the police have a dog put to sleep because it is so dangerous it would be irresponsible to allow it back out into the public environment.”

The story suggests this FOI has involved a fair amount of back and forth to get all the details – the initial response was that it was unknown how many dogs were seized in 2019 but later it found to be four, while for 2020/21 the FOI also originally stated £0 was spent on kennelling and vet bills but this figure later transpired to be more than £6,000.

Long waits for appointments

While some of the figures covering the spiralling NHS waiting lists are published regularly, information on specific services may be accessible by FOI.

Children are having to wait up to five years for an NHS autism appointment, according to figures obtained by the Observer. Across 20 NHS trusts that provided figures, children with outstanding autism referrals have waited nearly six months on average for their first appointment.

Expensive jabs

In a bid to get people to vaccinated against Covid, councils have come up with a variety of campaigns to persuade them (such as paying social media influences to promote getting jabbed). However, these often cost money, and may have varying success.

Tower Hamlets Council spent £535.36 per person who was jabbed at a festival aimed at increasing the uptake of Covid vaccines. It featured live music and free food vouchers for festivalgoers (and centres for getting the Covid vaccine) but the East London Advertiser has revealed the festival cost the council £237,235 to run, and just 435 people were vaccinated.

Fast food crime hotspot

McDonald’s restaurants in Sheffield have been referenced in more than 400 crimes reported to South Yorkshire Police in the last three years, the Star reveals.

Alleged offences included sexual assaults and an incident of kidnapping.

The Star launched an investigation to try and find out if there was a broader problem with crimes associated with McDonald’s restaurants after police and the council had to intervene following reports of persistent anti-social behaviour problems at an outlet in Handsworth in March.

Needed adaptations

Disabled people are being left trapped waiting years for vital home adaptations – the Bureau Local found long and growing waits for occupational therapist visits – the first step to getting home adaptations – that are forcing thousands of disabled people to sacrifice their independence and dignity for years, while others are trapped inside or locked out of their own homes.

In 10 council areas in England and Wales, people had to wait on average more than a year to see an occupational therapist and complete the pre-application steps, including Southend, where the wait is more than 18 months.

Unanswered calls

The number of police calls to Avon and Somerset Police that are abandoned after not being picked up quickly enough has more than tripled in three years, from 5,108 in 2019 to 17,471 in 2021, according to Chard and Ilminster News.

The overall number of calls went up, but not as quickly – from 971,025 to 998,468.

Under the police’s Service Level Agreement, 999 calls should be answered within 10 seconds and 101 calls within a minute – the police force counts calls as unanswered if they’re abandoned outside those timeframes. It said it will always call back abandoned 999 calls, whether abandoned inside or outside of the 10 seconds.

Calls answered but details missed

A possibly related issue – Police Scotland has recorded 330 failures by its call handlers and control rooms in the last three years, the Scotsman reports. Statistics obtained by the Scottish Conservatives (see what I mean!) include 53 incidents of missing or incorrect information.

The figures refer to “notable incidents’, which are defined as those likely to have a “significant impact” on the reputation of the force or its partners.

Council investments

Over the past decade some local authorities built up large investment portfolios through loans at very low rates from Government body the Public Works Loan Board (PWLB). Central Government banned councils from buying up investment property using this source in November 2020 after £6.6billion was borrowed in loans to carry out acquisitions between 2016-17 and 2018-19.

However, councils that used this route still have these assets in their portfolio, potentially bringing in income. The Daily Record reports, at present, the Bournemouth, Christchurch and Poole Council investment portfolio comprises of Mallard Road Retail Park, Madeira Road Student Accommodation, Citrus Building (ground floor Turtle Bay), Wessex Trade Centre, Dolphin Shopping Centre, Saxon Square, Airfield Industrial Park and Parkway House Avenue Road, and brought in £2,770,648.71 in 2020/21.

Electric shock

Only two Welsh council have published electric vehicle (EV) transition plans despite being encouraged to do so by the UK Government, according to WalesOnline.

Of the 22 Welsh Councils, Carmarthenshire and Anglesey, have published an EV charging transition plan. Six other council have plans to publish plans, and the rest had no plan or did not respond to the requests.

The sale of new petrol and diesel cars and vans will be banned in the UK from 2030 and plug-in vehicles, which include pure electrics and plug-in hybrids, accounted for more than one in six new cars registered in the UK in 2021. FairCharge, which carried out the FOI, said the results were concerning as they could hinder people in switching to electric vehicles.

Complaining customers

A group of disgusted children saw a couple having sex in the grounds of an Irish castle, a mum was left shocked at being told to use the disabled toilet if she wanted to breastfeed, and a worker serving tea who had a “good rub of his nose” before handing over the cups – those were among the complaints relating to National Historic Properties held by the Office of Public Works, and reported in the Daily Star.

If your council is responsible for any tourist sites or similar, it might be worth finding out what complaints they’ve had from visitors.

Fake Kit

Celtic and Rangers strips are among the most ripped off in the UK, with hundreds of Old Firm jerseys seized from fraudsters trying to bring them into the country, the Daily Record reports. In total 253 Celtic tops and 248 Rangers tops were found by officers.

The figures come from the first study of counterfeit kit seized by UK Border Force agents at ports in 2021. The figures, revealed under freedom of information (FOI) laws, saw Premier League side Everton listed as the most commonly seized.

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