Freedom of Information in the news – week ending 7/10/22 – #FOIFriday

A reminder that it is worth complaining if Freedom of Information requests aren’t dealt with as you’d expect. There seems to be a tendency, especially with late replies, just to let things go. But public bodies are aware when performance is poor, and complaints may encourage them to put more resources into improving performance.

In 2021/22, South Ayrshire Council received 928 FOI requests. Of these, the proportion of requests answered within the statutory 20 working days dropped from 85% in 2020/21 to 72% in 2021/22. The Daily Record story mentions that 319 requests were late (the numbers don’t tally, but I think they’re counting each time a department had to deal with all or part of a request).

However, only 21 of the 928 requesters sought a review of decisions, and just three went a stage further and requested an independent investigation from the Scottish Information Commissioner. As in Scotland you need to request an internal review for an overdue request, that’s a lot of people not complaining about the wait.

Agency social workers

This story, based on an FOI by the Welsh Conservatives, centres on a council where there had been a tragic death of an abused child, and where inspectors had concerns about the social care department. However, potentially, it’s a request that could work in other areas where issues may not be as pronounced.

A freedom of information request found that Bridgend Council spent £1,147,354 on agency social workers that year. This was a huge jump from the £165,624 spent the year before and £146,496 in 2019/20, WalesOnline reports.

Criminal cops

A number of police officers and staff have been allowed to continue serving the West Midlands force despite having criminal records, Birmingham Live has been revealed. Offences committed by members of the force included violent disorder, assault, drink-driving and harassment.

But despite these offences they were allowed to either keep their jobs with West Midlands Police or join the force at a later date. Out of 24 offences, 16 were committed while the officer or staff member was with the force – but they were allowed to keep their jobs.

If a cop commits a crime deemed to be serious, it can result in them being sacked but it is not always the case, as the data released following a freedom of information request shows. The most common offence was drink-driving, with six convictions.

Hate crimes

Figures suggest hate crimes are rising, and, like other types of crime, many are going undetected, making this a potential area for more investigation using FOI.

Of the thousands of disability hate crimes reported to the police last year, just 1% resulted in criminal charges, two charities have revealed. Leonard Cheshire and United Response submitted Freedom of Information requests to 43 police forces in England and Wales and 36 responded.

It found that out of more than 11,000 reports, 99% of cases went no further, BBC News reports.

Bin collector shortages

A while back there were problems with a shortage of HGV drivers. One sector with recruitment potential was the people who drive bin lorries – that plus poor and stagnating public sector pay potentially meant disrupted collections and more overtime pay.

Acting off a tip-off (FOI can be really useful for standing those up) after a refuse collector got in touch to express concerns about overtime spending, the Stray Ferret reports that Harrogate council spent £138,246 on overtime in 2019, £135,636 in 2020 and £134,196 in 2021. The figures do not include casual workers.

The council, which will be abolished in just under six months, employed 93 waste and recycling drivers and loaders in 2020, compared with 95 in 2021 and 100 in 2020.

David Houlgate, secretary of the Harrogate local government branch of public sector union Unison, said the council had been “in a recruitment and retention crisis for some time”.

Under threat buses

Another example of using FOI as a follow-up. Transport for London has claimed planned bus cuts are in response to a drop in passenger numbers. However, as Southwark News reports, figures released using FOI show otherwise.

The data assessed the use of eight threatened night buses, including the 24-hour route 12, and found that many were often used at over 90 per cent of their pre-pandemic levels. The buses included in the study were the N11, N16, N31, N72 N74, 12, 14 and 24, between 12am and 5am, over a 23-week period, between February and August, in 2019 and 2022.

Out of the eight routes, all were above 80 per cent of pre-pandemic use, five were 90 per cent and up, and two, including route 12, were over 100 per cent.

Hanging on the telephone

Call handlers in the West Midlands are struggling to keep up with rising numbers of 999 calls. There have been 53,820 abandoned 999 calls to West Midlands Police in 2022, as of the end of September. That compared to 14,313 for the same period in 2021 – a rise of almost four times.

Birmingham Live reports that while abandoned calls ballooned, those that were answered each month remained roughly the same, showing call centres have been struggling to cope with the extra demand.

The 40 year council housing wait

Anyone can join the council housing waiting list, but as those on it are prioritised based on need (with those who are homeless or in unsuitable accommodation offered somewhere to love more quickly). This can leave some people waiting a long time for a council house.

One South Kesteven resident has been on the waiting list since 1978 – 44 years – due to them specifying an extremely limited area of choice. The longest wait in South Holland is six years, according to Spalding Today.

A couple who own a three-bedroom house have also been asking the City of Lincoln Council for a property for 35 years, but are deemed low priority as their current accommodation is seen as suitable for their needs.

Stolen pets

Using Freedom of Information requests to find out about stolen dogs is one that is done fairly regularly, but what about stolen tortoises? This one is a case of expanding out the focus of the request a bit.

New data from West Midlands Police reveals the animals targeted most often by crooks looking to sell them on and make a quick profit – leaving their owners heartbroken, Birmingham Live reports. Perhaps unsurprisingly, dogs are targeted most often with dozens of the much-loved pets swiped from their owners since 2017.

Birds too were a popular target for thieves. An array of other animals were also reported stolen, including a sole tortoise.

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