Freedom of Information in the news – week ending 6/5/22 – #FOIFriday

This week’s potential FOI ideas include the rising cost of energy for public bodies, the impact of the rising cost of fuel on crime, and NHS pressures.

While the last two weeks of #FOIFriday have been delayed by fun things, this week’s has been delayed by the local elections (the fun levels involved in that will depend on your personal ideas of fun). However, if you want to see who won in any ward up for election in England and Wales, we did spend the time putting together a very comprehensive results widget.

Safeguarding at after-school clubs

Dozens of allegations of safeguarding failures in after-school clubs – including assaults, neglect and sexual abuse – have been uncovered by BBC News. More than 80 referrals have been made to local authorities about clubs in school grounds in the past five years, according to freedom of information requests.

Safeguarding referrals included an allegation of sexual abuse potentially involving multiple children at an after-school club in Devon and separate allegations of neglect, physical harm and unexplained bruising elsewhere. One child was found to have been dragged across a room by a staff member in Southampton.

Crumbling hospitals

The number of clinical incidents linked to the failure to repair old buildings and faulty equipment has tripled in the past five years, an investigation by The Times found.

Recent incidents include an unconscious patient on a ventilator being trapped in a broken lift for 35 minutes and power running out as a patient lay in an operating theatre. Freedom of information requests sent to NHS trusts in England also revealed dozens of cases of ceilings collapsing at hospitals over the past three years.

The cost of clearing the NHS maintenance backlog reached £9 billion in 2019/20, with £1.5 billion needed just for the “high risk” issues (defined as repairs and replacements that must be addressed as an urgent priority in order to prevent catastrophic failure, major disruption to clinical services, or deficiencies in safety liable to cause serious injury or prosecution).

Ambulances under pressure

Like all other parts of the NHS, ambulance services are under huge pressure as the deal with increased demand, and the knock-on impacts of delays in other parts of the health service and in social care.

Stroke victims in the South West typically wait more than an hour for an ambulance, Gloucestershire Live has reported. South Western Ambulance Service figures revealed the average waiting time for emergency patients is more than quadruple the target time of 18 minutes.

Some of the information for average response time per category is already available without an FOI, but breakdowns by type of patient aren’t. For cardiac arrest and stroke patients, those in category 1 were typically reached within 10 minutes (the target is seven minutes). However, those in category 2 commonly waited for one hour, 15 minutes and three seconds (the target is 18 minutes).

These pressures may not be helped by closures to ambulance stations across the country.

In the West Midlands, 18 stations were closed in 2017, 15 in 2018, 12 across 2019/20, and 12 last year in 2021, according to the Shropshire Star.

However, the ambulance service rejected the link between community ambulance stations and response times, saying that crews only use the stations to start or finish their shift, and are not waiting at the buildings to answer calls. It instead highlighted the significant amounts of time spent waiting outside hospitals to hand patients over, saying the situation is the most significant factor in delays to response times. It insists re-opening the stations would take more ambulances off the road due to costs.

Cost of living for everyone

While cost of living and soaring energy bill stories have, unsurprisingly, focused on households, the extra costs are going to be a problem for everyone.

As noted in a previous #FOIFriday, councils are predicting having to spend millions more on gas and electricity, but police forces are similarly staring at an energy bills black hole, according to FOI requests by the Liberal Democrats.

The UK’s police forces face a £27m black hole in their heating bills thanks to the soaring cost of gas and oil. Police stations, offices and other facilities are forecast to see their energy costs rise by 250 per cent, because the Government’s price cap does not apply to non-domestic settings.

The Treasury and Home Office have refused to allocate extra money to police forces to help them deal with the increased price of heating and electricity. With a lot of public bodies seeing funding rising only in line with previous more modest inflation (and not keeping up with current soaring inflation), the need to keep lights and heating on may mean cuts elsewhere.

Fuel thefts

Filling up your car is super expensive, so has that led to more people trying to steal petrol? In the West Midlands, that’s apparently the case.

Fuel theft is soaring as police investigated scores of drivers who failed to pay at petrol pump forecourts in Birmingham, according to Birmingham Live. It comes as the price of fuel reached an all time high in March.

West Midlands Police probed 1,150 reports of “bilking” – where suspects fill their fuel tanks and drive away without paying – between January and March in 2022. Thefts in Birmingham accounted for almost half that amount throughout the region.

Housing complaints

Where councils still have responsibility for social housing, it also means they have responsibility for maintaining those homes, and for compensating people for problems (where houses have ben passed to housing associations this information will be harder to come by, although the Social Housing Regulation Bill announced in the Queen’s Speech will enable tenants of housing associations to request information from their landlord in a similar way to how the Freedom of Information Act, that “similar way” is probably doing a lot of work).

Wokingham Borough Council has paid out a total of £3, 219 to complainants between April 2021 and April 2022 – nearly twice the amount of the previous year’s £1,711, according to Bracknell News. Nine out of the 24 compensation amounts paid during that time were for residents going multiple days without heating and hot water – totalling £525. 

The longest period a complainant went without heating and hot water was 21 days, for which the resident received a payout of £105. The data indicates that £5 per day was issued to those who did not have use of these utilities. 

Poor hygiene

Unfortunately, MPs are not subject to the Freedom of Information Act, so ability to change one’s own sheets and the regularity of doing so can’t be used as a measure of politician’s abilities in other areas, as this columnist suggests:

“Someone do a Freedom of Information request, for Christ’s sake. I’d like to make this a screening test for politicians. Because honestly, if a man can’t change his sheets for four months, I don’t know why we expect him to be any good at cleaning up the country.”

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