Freedom of Information in the news – week ending 26/8/22 – #FOIFriday

This week’s FOIFriday written while listening to ambient Scotsrail music (via the power of FOI, more about this later).

In Freedom of Information news this week, the much criticised Cabinet Office Clearing House is set to be overhauled. It had been accused of blacklisting journalists, blocking the release of politically sensitive data, and generally making FOI requests more difficult, rather than making the process run more smoothly.

Following a report into its activities, it is to be replaced with a ‘centre of excellence’. It will be redesigned to more clearly operate as an advisory function, and to be more transparent about what it’s doing. And a ’round robin’ list which identified requests from “known journalists” will be revamped and made anonymous.

Missing out on help

Today’s price cap announcement means any help with energy costs is desperately needed, especially for poorer housholds.

However, more than three million households in Britain were still waiting to receive a £150 payment to help with energy costs on 1 July, a BBC Freedom Of Information (FOI) request has revealed.

Councils were expected to start paying the £150 council tax rebates from April, but have until September to do so. Doing this for households paying by direct debit was mostly straightforward – 97% of households who pay by direct debit in England and Wales had got the payment.

However, only half of those who pay in other ways, a group that typically includes lower-income households, had received the payment.

Empty homes

With charities warning the cost of living crisis may lead to a rise in families no longer able to pay rent or mortgage, there is likely to be strong demand for council homes. But how many are currently empty, and what might be preventing them being used.

Following a Freedom Of Information (FOI) request, Bristol City Council has revealed there are currently 30 council owned properties which have been empty for more than six months, according to Bristol Live. The council property which has been empty the longest has been unoccupied for 1,166 days.

That property is currently undergoing structural repairs but no information has been given as to why the other 29 properties have been left vacant for more than 6 months.

Racism at football matches

Last season saw a huge rise in racism incidents at football matches in the West Midlands. There were 46 reports of racism made to West Midlands Police during the 2021/22 season – compared to zero in 2019/20, when fans last attended matches prior to last season.

The data, obtained by BirminghamLive, shows how challenging it is for police to punish the racists. Of 46 reports made to the force in 2021/22, only six arrests were made and it’s not known how many of those six went on to be charged with an offence.

Counselling for students

Nearly 2,000 students in Scotland are currently waiting for help from university mental health services. Scottish Liberal Democrat leader Alex Cole-Hamilton, whose party collected the figures, has urged the government to asses whether the standard of counselling services on campus is “sufficient”, as the figures show variations in waits.

There were at least 1,874 students on counselling waiting lists on March 29. That includes 900 people at the University of Edinburgh alone, the Herald reports. Meanwhile, Aberdeen, St Andrew’s, Stirling University and the University of West Scotland have no waiting lists.

In Glasgow, where there are 191 students on the list, the longest waiting time for access is 141 days. In Edinburgh, it is 105 days. However, in Aberdeen, it’s just three days.

Drink and drugs

Ninety children were admitted to Southend and Basildon’s A&E departments for alcohol or drug abuse last year, The Echo has revealed. A Freedom of Information request revealed 51 of those children were seen at Southend Hospital, with 39 going to Basildon.

The majority of children admitted for drinking alcohol and taking drugs last year were aged between 15 and 18. But some as young as four were seen by Basildon’s A&E department, while the youngest age recorded in Southend was ten.

The end of school crossing patrols

Freedom of Information requests submitted to county councils across England show an average of 150 lollipop ladies and men have been axed every year for the past seven years. Of the 78 councils which responded in full to the FoI request, 17 have seen at least 20 leave their posts since 2015. Hampshire County Council has axed a record 84, according to the Daily Mail.

Between 2015 and 2021, the national cumulative budget for crossing patrollers has fallen by £1.6 million. The Lib Dems, who compiled the figures, said the Government is putting child safety at risk by forcing councils to cut back on essential services.

Eurovision bid

With a number of cities now competing to host next year’s Eurovision, how much are those bids (and those of cities that dropped out or failed to make the shortlist) costing?

Mayor Marvin Rees led a campaign to see the annual singing competition come to Bristol, when it takes place in May 2023, but the city did not make the shortlist. A recent freedom of information request has revealed the city council spent £50 on making a video for the bid, and £20.42 on travel expenses.

However, the video, which was made by an external videographer, was not used due to licensing issues, ITV News reports.

The cost of £70.42 is much less than what some other cities have spent in their bids to host Eurovision. Aberdeen City Council committed to spend £30,000 of taxpayers’ money on their bid, but also ended up not making the shortlist of host cities.

Rail delays, rather than delayed requests

The point of FOI is you can conceivably ask for *any* information held by a public body. And if the public body is a transport provider, that can include the train announcement recordings.

Since it came into public ownership, ScotRail, like other public bodies, is now subject to the requests to disclose information in the public interest, usually within 28 days. Following one Freedom of Information Request, more than 2,000 audio tracks were published, all featuring voice artist Alison Mckay, the BBC reports.

Since, they were released, people have been finding inventive ways to repurpose the audio files. Matt Eason combined the announcements with ambient lo-fi beats, if you’re looking for something alternative to study to. The audio has been transcribed (there are announcements for all eventualities, like unexploded world war two bombs and stolen third rail equipment), and now lives as @ScotRailBot.

Ok, now someone do Cardiff Bus and Transport for Wales.

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