Freedom of Information in the news – week ending 21/10/22 – #FOIFriday

This is your weekly encouragement to send the FOI.

Sending a Freedom of Information request can help uncover more details – final reports are often summaries of lots of information and there may be more background that’s of interest – or factcheck claims by public bodies or their representatives.

For example, following an investigation into a massive gas explosion in Ayr last October that left a family of four seriously injured, the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) announced that no action would be taken over the explosion.

However, a Freedom of Information (FOI) request found that inspectors had discovered “numerous localised spots of corrosion” in the pipe leading into the home. Data obtained by several media organisations also revealed the damage may have been caused as far back as the early 1970s, STV reports.

Plenty of claims get made by public bodies and their representatives (as well as by others about the work of public bodies) – in press releases, in meetings, on social media – but often these aren’t backed up by obvious evidence, so could maybe do with a factcheck.

The Met Police Federation said 74 police officers were injured at Notting Hill Carnival. So lawyer & campaigner Gemma Abbott followed that up with an FOI to police. Turned out the actual number was 60, and the range of injuries and causes was fairly broad.

Of the 60 officers injured, 55 had “minor non-reportable injuries”. Among those injured, 27 were “physically assaulted” resulting in “minor non-reportable” injuries, 13 suffered “lifting and handling injuries”, one hurt their back from “carrying or wearing officer safety equipment”, and three had a slip, trip or fall.

In an interview with The Times, Chancellor (correct at time of going to print) Jeremy Hunt claimed Adam Kay’s ‘This Is Going To Hurt: Secret Diaries of a Junior Doctor’ was the book he ‘couldn’t finish’, commenting that Kay had ‘crossed wires’ about him never having experienced life on the frontline of the NHS while working as health secretary. Mr Hunt had claimed he had in fact visited wards ‘pretty much every week’ and his duties included ‘changing bed pans, washing beds and doing tea rounds in wards’.

In a Twitter response, Kay also shared ‘a quick FOI [freedom of information] request’ he’d sent the government in order to try and verify if the claims Mr Hunt had made about cleaning beds and bed pans was indeed true, the Metro reports.

It’s also your weekly encouragement to stick with the FOI.

Answers do not always come quickly (although if it’s public bodies taking longer to respond than the 20 working days, report them to the ICO). Sometimes you need to be willing to complain and appeal, and argue your case at a tribunal.

Thurrock Council has been ordered to reveal exactly how it borrowed and invested £1bn of taxpayers’ money after a Freedom of Information fight by Gareth Davies, who works for The Bureau of Investigative Journalism’s The Bureau Local project.

Gareth previously revealed Thurrock had borrowed £1bn from other local authorities and then invested hundreds of millions of pounds in a “complex and potentially risky” series of bonds connected to solar farms. Now a tribunal has ruled there is a “powerful public interest in public authorities being open about their activities and accountable for them”, and suggested the council had withheld information from the public eye in order to avoid embarrassment.

An even longer battle in Brighton – the Argus has been fighting since 2016 to publish the reasoning behind the council’s decision to finance the construction of the i360 – the world’s tallest moving observation tower.

Former Argus business editor John Keenan’s request was backed by the Information Commissioner’s Office, which ruled the business case should be made publicly available. But a judge overruled the decision on the grounds that competitors would “exploit” the information to the detriment of the i360.

A fresh Freedom of Information request by Jody Doherty-Cove, special projects editor at Argus publisher Newsquest, was redacted on commercial grounds earlier this year. But, instead of deleting key financial details from its response, officials just put a black background on the text so it could still be read when copied and pasted.

The council dubbed the redaction blunder “human error” and said it will be addressing this issue so future FOI requests are properly redacted, further claiming the information is “no longer commercially sensitive” – just a month after refusing the request on commercial grounds.

But maybe don’t be too persistent with your FOIs…

Peter Joyce was told to only contact Hartlepool Council by email on Wednesdays after he was issued with a single point of contact (SPOC) restriction. The local authority imposed the restrictions because it said Mr Joyce made “a large number of enquiries” about various issues.

Mr Joyce, 72, maintained he only went back to the council when he felt it did not fully answer his questions and freedom of information requests, the Hartlepool Mail reports.

Some other ideas for questions you could ask using FOI:

Sex crimes in hospitals

Stark figures, revealed by the Telegraph and Argus, have shown how rapes and sexual assaults reported to have happened in hospital environments are largely going unpunished.

According to the figures, 39 rapes and 124 sexual assaults were recorded by the force between the start of 2019 and September of this year, where the location was identified as ‘hospital’. In the same time period, five rapes and 21 sexual assaults were recorded where the offence location was specifically given as a hospital ward.

No one has been charged over the rape reports and of the 145 sexual assaults, just eight cases have resulted in a charge. The data was released by West Yorkshire Police through a Freedom of Information request.

Assaults at children’s homes

A Fife MSP has spoken of his shock at the discovery there had been 40 incidents of assault on staff by residents in Fife Council run residential childcare homes in the past year, Fife Today reports. Alex Rowley, MSP for Mid-Scotland and Fife, described 15 assaults in September alone as “frightening” and has asked Fife Council to outline its actions to protect staff.

The figures came following a Freedom Of Information request he submitted to find out the extent of any issues following critical Care Inspectorate reports at Glenlyon Care Home in Leven, and Ardean Care Home in Dunfermline.

Mental health absences

Emergency service workers are “sacrificing their own health” as new figures reveal almost 170,000 staff hours were lost to mental health absences.

Figures obtained through Freedom of Information (FOI) requests revealed ambulance staff absences totalled 169,574 hours between July 2021 and June 2022. The number soared 68,559 hours in the previous year, between July 2020 and June 2021, where the number of mental health absence hours totalled 101,015, STV reports.

Hospital maintenance

As a possible metaphor for the creaking state of the NHS (or more likely another impact of lack of money), hospitals are literally falling apart (see the Norfolk hospital with more props to keep the roof up than beds).

The cost of the maintenance backlog on NHS Lothian buildings has more than doubled since the start of the pandemic, Edinburgh News reports.

At the end of the 2020/21 financial year, the bill for work waiting to be done was £52,900,000, but it is now estimated to be £113,451,635 – an increase of 114 per cent. There are a total of 4,843 items on the list. The biggest include £9 million to replace “aged and ineffective” ventilation at the Western General Hospital and £3 million for windows at St John’s Hospital, Livingston.

The figures were obtained by the Scottish Conservatives through a series of Freedom of Information requests to health boards.

Hoax calls

Hoax callers in Kent are most likely to come from Ashford, according to Kent Live. Data from Kent Police shows the town has been the source of most hoax calls taken by its phone handlers.

The force says it recorded 119 calls last year which had been deemed a hoax, and on average it deals with 146 such calls every year. The police were asked for the number times these calls were recorded on since 2015, and their locations.

A Freedom of Information request revealed Ashford has had the highest number over the past eight years with 93. The town was followed by Gillingham with 91, and Gravesend with 88.

Seized vehicles

AA Insurance submitted a Freedom of Information request to all 46 police forces across the UK and found that since 2018, 542,370 vehicles have been taken away from drivers for not having insurance.

The figures from North Yorkshire Police show that 4,866 uninsured cars have been seized, including at least 724 so far this year, The Press reports. Last year, 984 vehicles were confiscated, equating to 1.8 seizures for every 1,000 licensed vehicles in North Yorkshire, as of the end of 2021.

Motorists in cycle lanes

Just 12 motorists have been fined for straying in cycle lanes during the first three months of Sadiq Khan’s crackdown on drivers, Transport for London has said, according to the Telegraph.

Often politicians will pledge to tackle issues that are causing their constituents to despair. But, as with littering, dog mess, noise, cycling on pavements, and petty vandalism, these types of minor offences are usually low priority for police so few people get caught (even if locals think they’re a plague).

Pest control

On the subject of plagues…

Total council pest control visits have risen across Scotland from 2020/21 to 2021/2022. A series of freedom of information requests by the Herald have revealed which critters are the biggest focus of each council’s vermin services.

Overall between July 2020 and June 2021, local authorities facilitated 36,995 pest control, but in the following 12 months, that figure rose to 45,918 – mainly due to an increase in wasp-related callouts.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.