#FOIFriday this week covers the use of keyword search in crime data, to find out which online services people are reporting crimes in relation to, the fallout from the pandemic with more teens on antidepressants and more being homeschooled, and the cost of living impact on public bodies’ fuel bills.
In other Freedom of Information news this week, the Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee has expressed disappointment after the Cabinet Office mostly rebuffed the recommendations it made for its handling of Freedom of Information Act requests. Campaigners (who, I suspect, passed disappointment a while back) called the response a missed opportunity and dispiriting, with one saying now was time for a review of the Freedom of Information framework so to “limit the room for people in the Cabinet Office to just put two fingers up to the process”.
MPs had called for an independent audit of the Cabinet Office’s FOI practices to be carried out by the Information Commissioner’s Office. The Cabinet Office refused and opted for an ‘internal review’ of the Clearing House. It has said it will publish only a summary of its findings rather than the full report (given this is a report people who care a lot about FOI are going to be very interested in seeing, I’m pretty sure it’s going to get plenty of FOI requests about publishing the full version…).
Meanwhile, the BBC is having to FOI the BBC to get to the bottom of what complaints had been made about DJ Tim Westwood (after the corporation had previously said there was no evidence of complaints). Also the ICO is having to tell itself to publish requested information, after it wrongly refused the request.
On the run
Police have reportedly been left “too busy” to arrest fugitives, BirminghamLive reports. Freedom of Information responses from 35 of the 43 forces in England and Wales revealed there are 22,345 “failure to appear” warrants currently active. Shockingly, some dated back to as far as 1980s.
Scotland Yard had 3,961 outstanding warrants as of May, including 920 for violent crimes, possessing offensive weapons or making threats to kill. West Midlands Police had 1,791 and Greater Manchester Police 1,386, including 75 for sexual offences and two for suspected murderers.
Antidepressant prescriptions rise
A total of 1.03million antidepressant prescriptions were made to people aged between 13-and-19-years in 2020, the latest available data. This was a 26 per cent rise compared to the number of prescriptions in 2016 (822,717), MailOnline reports.
The NHS data records prescriptions rather than individual patients, meaning someone could be recorded multiple times. Antidepressant prescriptions have also soared by 39 per cent in people in their 20s over the same time period (it would have been useful to have information for all ages to know whether its rising faster for younger people or just increasing quickly generally).
The cost of living crisis may see more people struggling to find suitable accommodation. It may also mean more people unable to access drug treatment and adequate food. A freedom of information request to Norfolk Police shows there were 194 no fixed abode arrests in 2021, 176 in 2020, 216 in 2019, 233 in 2018 and 158 in 2017.
Homeless people across the city have been left with the perfect storm of battling addictions and struggling to find suitable accommodation during a cost of living crisis. And some sleeping on the streets have told the Evening News how homeless people have become targets for police due to drug addictions and anti-social behaviour including resorting to theft when short of food.
Rising fuel costs
It’s not just the public facing soaring electricity and gas bills, public bodies will also see prices rise. A survey of NHS trusts across England and Scotland, by the Metro using Freedom of Information requests, shows they are facing rises of up to £29 million in the three financial years to date.
In Nottingham, costs for gas, electricity and oil combined rose from £8.8 million in 2020 and 2021 to £15.8 the following year. The budget, and therefore forecast, for the current financial year is £37.9 million.
At Barts Health, the largest trust in London, the cost of gas and electricity combined rose from £14.3 million between 2020 and 2021 to £18.7 million the following year. The cost is forecast to rise to £34.8 million in the current financial year – an increase of 86%.
House repair backlog
A Freedom of Information request found that on May 31 there were 12,111 outstanding repairs for social housing in Cardiff. Of those, 2,300 have been waiting to be completed for more than six months, and more than 1,400 for more than a year, WalesOnline reports.
According to Cardiff Council, the figure 12,111 relates to all cases currently in the council’s responsive repairs system, including properties visited ahead of a repair starting, repairs already underway and in communal areas. The council said a backlog had built up as the responsive repairs unit faced considerable issues during the pandemic, with extensive periods when operatives were not able to access properties, but numbers of jobs had reduced with work ongoing to clear the backlog.
Dating app crime
This looks like a keyword search FOI – where the requester has asked for details of crime reports where certain words (in this case the names of dating apps) are mentioned. It’s also a useful reminder that not all crimes are recorded by individual police forces, with fraud cases (likely to be a not uncommon crime involving dating apps) are recorded centrally.
Those looking for romance in Cumbria have reported being raped, stalked, harassed and blackmailed after signing up to online dating services, the News & Star has revealed. As well as crimes linked to popular dating sites including Tinder, Grindr and Plenty of Fish reported to Cumbria Police, there were also ‘romance scams’ involving financial fraud reported to the national Action Fraud initiative.
Figures obtained by the N&S show at least 35 offences have been linked to leading dating platforms in recent years. They include three rapes, seven blackmail offences, one case of sexual activity with a child, eight harassment claims and one stalking offence.
A similar use of FOI to get more details on online grooming offences by asking for details about which services are being mentioned in reports.
According to figures gathered by the NSPCC through Freedom of Information requests, 6,156 sexual communication with a child offences have been recorded over the last year, with the data from 41 police forces showing an increase of 84% since 2017/18 – with more than 27,000 offences recorded since 2017.
The data showed Meta-owned platforms such as Facebook, Instagram and WhatsApp were used in 38% of all cases where the platform was known, the Evening Standard report. Snapchat was used in 33% of cases where a platform was recorded.
The number of children opting for homeschooling in Solihull has jumped 22% over the last three years, a Freedom of Information request submitted to Solihull Council shows, BirminghamLive reports.
In total, 272 children chose to be schooled at home during the 2019/2020 academic year. This number then shot up the following year to 381, a 40 per cent increase. The 2021/22 academic year saw a slight dip from the previous year with 334.
Drink driving convictions
Middlesbrough’s TS3 postcode has three times more drink driving convictions than the UK average, the Sun reports. There 16.1 drivers per thousand have a booze rap on their record, compared to 6.6 per thousand nationally.
The next highest is 15.9 in the DN1 part of Doncaster, followed by Wolverhampton’s WV1 postcode is third with 15.3. Figures revealed by the DVLA under Freedom of Information laws show that four of the ten worst places in the UK are in the North, three in the Midlands and three in Wales.
Sex in public
There were 43 recorded offences of public sex in Norfolk and 27 in Suffolk between 2017 and 2021, a Freedom of Information request showed, according to the Eastern Daily Press. The data does not show if any prosecutions resulted from these incidents (given outcomes are recorded for each offence this is a really easy thing to ask for!).
Public sex offences are covered by a range of possible charges including outraging public decency contrary to common law and exposure, where someone exposing themselves intending others will see them and be caused alarm or distress.