Freedom of Information in the news – week ending 5/8/22 – #FOIFriday

Public bodies are struggling with rising costs and increasing pressures (and Covid backlogs as well), and some, such as the NHS, already have staff shortages. One story this week stemmed from the council admitting failing to recruit and retain staff was a serious risk.

But can FOI be a way to find out more detail on staffing levels and potential issues from lack of staff?

And that lack of resources, staff, and the resulting increasingly threadbare service may be making people increasingly angry, and liable to take out their frustration on the staff who are still there (not a good recipe for morale and retention).

Rather than coming up with a sensible plan to address the above, the Government, including the current candidates vying to be Prime Minister, have been accused of coming up with policy ideas that are less than helpful. For example, Rishi Sunak’s ambition to make the UK a global hub for cryptoasset technology, including instructing the 1,136-year-old Royal Mint to issue a trendy non-fungible token by the summer.

Freedom of Information requests can be a useful way to follow up policy statements to find out what they actually led to. Huffpost submitted a request, asking how much taxpayers’ cash was being spent on the project, with the Treasury FoI team confirming it held the information but refused to divulge how much they were spending on the NFT (how useful or quick responses will be for helping you get to the bottom of things will vary).

A decade of drugs

This one is FOI commitment: For more than a decade PlymouthLive has requested data on all the drugs seized by police each year, comparing it with previous years to determine whether more – or less – drugs have been seized from the city’s streets.

The collected data helps show that in April 2020 to March 2021 officers in Plymouth made a total of 1,624 seizures. That included 1,811 cannabis plants – around a third of what they seized a decade earlier. The seizure of herbal cannabis had plummeted down to just 8.5kg, and in terms of cannabis resin, at just 98.5 grams, it had seemingly disappeared.

As for cocaine, police seized only around a third of what they did back in 2008/09 with just 1.1kg of cocaine taken off the streets. By comparison, officers seized 457 grams of crack cocaine, more than twice the amount seized a decade before. Highlighting the rise in use of heroin, officers seized 2.7kg of heroin, five times more than 10 years ago.

Waste collectors under attack

The Guardian published an article earlier this week, looking a rise in abusive behaviour from the public. It may be worth using FOI to look into whether different groups of workers in public-facing roles are facing such abuse.

Since the beginning of the year, at least 12 different waste collection workers have reported being physically assaulted or verbally abused in Berkshire, according to Berkshire Live. Of these incidents, at least two involved physical assault. One worker was even subject to an attack with a hockey stick, for refusing to take a bin that contained the wrong items in it.

Information obtained through Freedom of Information requests to Berkshire’s six local authorities shows there have been at least 35 cases of verbal and physical assault against bin workers in Berkshire since 2019. 

Staffing levels

Speaking at a meeting of Scarborough council’s audit committee in July, council director Lisa Dixon said that second on the list of 10 top risks currently facing the council is a failure to “recruit and retain staff”.

Between 2018 and July 2022, more than 230 people resigned from their jobs at Scarborough Council, 262 employees’ fixed-term contracts ended, and 28 staff members were dismissed, with 613 departures overall, according This is the Coast.

Carmarthenshire Council spent more than £200,000 on private companies to process planning applications and enforcement cases over the last four years because it was struggling to do the work., according to Nation.Cymru.

The council, in response to a Freedom of Information request by the Local Democracy Reporting Service, said it spent £182,123 and £4,078 on two firms – Prospero Planning and Asbri Planning – to process planning applications between April 1, 2018, and March 31, 2022. It paid Randstad Solutions Ltd £24,892 in relation to enforcement casework.

No one on call

Are there other ways to show staff shortages – such as focusing on the lack of staff in particular roles or on certain shifts?

There was no duty consultant available at Dr Gray’s Hospital in Elgin for the on call night shift on April 1, 4, 5, 22 and 23, a freedom of information request has uncovered. Emergency medical consultants provide senior leadership in emergency departments in hospitals and ensure safe processes are in place for patients.

The response to the freedom of information request, sent by the Press and Journal, detailed five occasions in the last five years where no duty consultant was available, even in the form of locum staff. The five occasions all occurred within weeks of each other in April.

Police vehicles rammed

There were 58 collisions involving police vehicles that were recorded as being “rammed” in the year to July 1, a Freedom of Information Request (FOI) to West Yorkshire Police by the Telegraph and Argus has revealed.

It comes after another FOI last month highlighted the force has had to spend more than £2.8 million on repairing its vehicles that were involved in pursuits over the past five years.

Vapes in schools

Scottish councils have reported a large rise in the number of vape-related products being confiscated from schoolchildren over the past four years, an STV News investigation suggests.

The law currently restricts sales to over 18s, but having not recorded a single incident in 2018/19, Fife schools confiscated 121 vapes in 2021/22. It was a similar picture in the city of Dundee, where none were confiscated in 2018/19, compared to 83 in 2021/22. Large rises were also reported at schools in South Ayrshire, Clackmannanshire, Inverclyde, East Dunbartonshire and West Dunbartonshire.

Second jobs

One way to try and survive the cost of living crisis is to earn more money. Police officers in Cambridgeshire are taking on second jobs and other sources of income to supplement their salaries, according to data received under the Freedom of Information Act.

Cambridgeshire police officers have recorded 303 “business interests”, 217 of which are registered as second jobs, according to Cambridgeshire Live. Cambridgeshire Constabulary currently employs 1,678 police officers meaning one in eight (12.9 per cent) have registered a second job. In 2019, Cambridgeshire Live reported that between five and 10 per cent of police officers had second jobs .

The variety of second jobs and other “business interests”, a term which also covers voluntary roles, include childminding, bar work, agriculture, and consultancy. The largest category was property rental and/or management, which accounted for 64 of the second jobs and business interests recorded.

Litter louts

It’s the depressing view of the summer – the overflowing bin at the park, the picnic food wrappers dumped at the beach, the litter dropped in the town centre. But are councils having much success fining those that cause a mess.

Bournemouth, Christchurch and Poole (BCP) Council handed out zero fines for littering offences for the past 12 months, the Daily Echo has revealed. Figures obtained via a Freedom of Information request reveal that in the year to the end of June this year, BCP Council issued no fines to people who littered the streets, seafront or parks. 

Meanwhile , the council cleaning teams collected 70 tonnes of rubbish over one weekend recently, and BCP spends £1 million a year clearing rubbish from beaches.

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