Freedom of Information in the news – week ending 15/7/22 – #FOIFriday

Why were people evicted from social housing, how old are hate crime victims, and what were parking tickets given out for – this week’s Freedom of Information ideas highlight the importance of asking for more detail, or for more up to date figures, like fuel thefts in a cost of living crisis.

In other FOI news, the ICO published a report looking at the use of WhatsApp and other messaging apps by Government. It concluded that there were real risks to transparency and accountability within government and has now called for a review of practices as well as action to be taken to ensure improvements are made in relation to how officials and Ministers use private correspondence channels moving forward.

The ICO has also released its strategy for its work on data protection and freedom of information for the next three years. The new strategy does at least seem to acknowledge some of the problems faced by FOI requesters, and commits to dealing with FOI complaints much more quickly and actually taking some enforcement action.

It seems to be better than the previous strategy, which achieved very little, as it at least has some measurable goals on dealing with complaints more quickly. However, with anything the ICO does, it will be whether they see it through and whether this leads to an actual improvement for requesters (I’ve got some more thoughts on the ICO25 strategy and how it compares to previous efforts).

Social housing evictions

Councils evicted more than 2,575 households over the last three years for not paying rent – including many during the financial pressures of the Covid-19 pandemic, according to Freedom of Information (FOI) requests submitted by The Mirror.

The council that evicted the most households for not paying enough rent in a single year was Sheffield City Council, with 140 evictions in the 2019/20 year.

The true eviction figure will be even higher, as 38 councils never responded and smaller councils were not included. Not only this, but many councils have sold off their council houses to housing associations – private companies not covered by FOI requests (one of the problems with trying to get information about social housing).

Fuel thefts

Fuel thefts are rising with around eight a week reported to police in Cumbria, the News and Star can reveal. In the five months to June, 167 fuel thefts were logged by Cumbria Constabulary – more than half of the 240 recorded throughout the entirety of 2021.

Figures obtained by the publication show the force has tackled more than 1,500 fuel thefts in just five years. That’s an average of around five a week since 2017 – but in 2022, the problem increased, with up to eight a week recorded between January and May.

Hate crimes

Toddlers are among hundreds of children who have been the victims of racial hate crimes, including abuse, threats and violence. Norfolk police has recorded 353 racially or religiously aggravated offences against children aged under 18 in the last five years, figures in the Eastern Daily Press have revealed. 

They include crimes against eight children who were aged five or under, with one victim who was three and another just two-years-old.

Special educational needs

Complaints by parents desperate to get help for their vulnerable children look set to double compared with five years ago. The Local Government and Social Care Ombudsman (LGSCO) received 403 complaints about how councils dealt with special educational needs (SEN) services between January and May, nearly the same as the 424 submitted in the whole of 2017, Schools Week reports.

The data, obtained by a freedom of information request, shows on average nearly 90 per cent of investigated complaints have been upheld. Most are likely to relate to education, health and care plans (EHCPs), a legal document detailing what support a child should get.

Busy doing nothing

A WalesOnline investigation has found that a minimum of 144 staff are currently suspended across Welsh public services costing around £5m a year.

However the the true figure is likely to significantly higher because many public bodies either did not come back to us or refused to release the data. The investigation found that potentially 50 people had been suspended for more than a year with the total cost to the tax payer potentially in excess of £7.5m.

Handily, the questions asked are in the story. Less handily, Welsh public bodies are terrible at FOI – asking the questions is a request for information, if it can’t be dealt with as a routine request (i.e. to the press office), it can just be treated as an FOI, it doesn’t need to be resubmitted, also those refusals because of small numbers don’t look like they’d hold up ICO complaint (not without a lot more detail in the refusal). Blaenau Gwent has suppressed numbers smaller than five for everything apart from one person on less than £50,000, which obviously screams taking identification risk seriously (Hywel Dda’s suppression is also nonsensical).

Council crimefighting

It’s not just the Crown Prosecution Service that can take people to court, councils also have powers for crimes relating to areas they enforce.

New figures from Herefordshire Council show there were 13 successful prosecutions in 2021/22 of drivers not registered as disabled using the badges to gain preferential parking, or failing to display such a badge, according to the Hereford Times. This compares to an average of fewer than six a year for the previous four years.

Figures, released under a freedom of information request, also show 24 successful prosecutions over trading standards, of which six related to sale of tobacco, 15 prosecutions for environmental crimes, and seven families were prosecuted for allowing their children to not attend school.

Parking fines for what?

On the subject of misuse of disabled parking. Illegally parking in disabled bays constituted one in six parking fines handed to drivers in Bracknell over the last 12 months, figures obtained by The News reveals.

Data from a Freedom of Information (FOI) request shows of the 2,591 Parking Charge Notices (PCN’s) dished out during this time 378 were for this offence, with the overwhelming majority (314) being issued at one location – The Avenue car park in the town centre.

Where, when and how many parking tickets have been handed out is a good FOI to do, also asking why people have been fined may lead to other stories.

Car crashes

MORE than £2.2m has been spent on repairing West Yorkshire Police vehicles that have been damaged in pursuits, the Telegraph and Argus reports.

Between 2017 and 2022, 568 vehicles were damaged due to pursuits, at a cost of £2,263,460. A total of 21 vehicles were written off in the period the FOI covers. The highest numbers were seen in 2017/18 and 2018/19, when six vehicles in each year were written off.

Houses in Multiple Occupancy

Some types of rental homes need a licence from the council. Houses in multiple occupation (HMO) need to be registered with the council if they are rented to five or more people in a shared house (where they share toilet, bathroom or kitchen facilities). Some councils have licensing requirements for all shared homes in particular areas as well.

This is primarily for safety reasons – these homes tend to be larger, may be over three (or more floors) and come with an increased fire risk. HMO licences ensure gas safety checks are carried out and proper smoke alarms are fitted. They are quite often found in areas where lots of students live.

Gloucester Road is the street in Bristol with the highest number of houses of multiple occupancy, with 125 such properties. The data – which was obtained by BristolLive via a Freedom of Information request – covers those neighbourhoods where a licensing scheme is in place, as the council doesn’t hold a register of HMO outside these.

It is followed by Fishponds Road (92) and Whiteladies Road (86). High Kingsdown in Cotham has 85, with nearly a quarter of houses in Cotham classed to be HMOs according to data released by Bristol City Council.

Lost luggage

As the school holidays get underway, another thing to worry about – on top of cancelled flights and long security queues. The Civic Aviation Authority (CAA) dealt with just over 360 cases of UK travellers’ lost luggage between 2017 and 2021, according to new research from luggage storage company Bounce.

Cases dealt with by the CAA (which is covered by the FOI Act) are only those cases that cannot be resolved with the airlines themselves (they’re not FOI-able).

The 5 worst airports for lost luggage in the UK

  • London Heathrow – 35.63% of mishandled baggage cases
  • London Gatwick – 19.54% of mishandled baggage cases
  • Manchester – 13.03% of mishandled baggage cases
  • Birmingham – 8.81% of mishandled baggage cases
  • London Stansted – 7.66% of mishandled baggage cases

Written in the stars

Does your star sign give any indication of the likelihood that you’ll end up banged up behind bars.

Leos are the star sign most likely to end up in London’s prisons, according to the Ministry of Justice. Data from a November 2020 Freedom of Information request showed there were a total of 881 Leos across all London prisons, followed closely by Capricorn with a total of 878, according to SW Londoner.

The problem with this FOI (ok, the other problem with this FOI) is that it tells us less about what star signs are most common in prison and more about which star signs are more common (as people are more likely to be born at some points of the year than others). So really you need to compare the likelihood of someone with a certain star sign being in prison versus the general likelihood of people having that star sign.

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