Freedom of Information in the news – week ending 4/11/22 – #FOIFriday

While this (mostly) weekly series is aimed at giving you inspiration for Freedom of Information requests you could send to, hopefully, generate some interesting stories, this is a reminder that you don’t always have to send the request.

There are other places to find answered FOI requests, such as disclosure logs or What Do They Know that can be quickly turned into stories (or might act as a source of ideas for other requests you could make).

While avoiding making extra requests would probably be welcomed by most public bodies, other seem to be actively encouraging people to make requests ( and, given plenty are less than enthusiastic about FOI, I’m not sure why they’d want to do this).

Objections to planning applications are no longer published by Derby City Council. Prior to 2021, anyone responding to a planning application would have their response published online so it could be seen by interested parties. Now just the number of objections versus supporting statements is displayed.

Derby structural engineer Peter Steer was shocked to find that the only way he could find out what people have been saying as part of their objection or support is to submit an FOI request. The comments cannot be viewed at council offices either.

GDPR is apparently the culprit – though if you can release some info through FOI, you can publish the same info on the website.

Long housing waits

More than 2,300 people died while waiting for social housing in the UK last year, openDemocracy has revealed.

Figures obtained by this website under the Freedom of Information Act also show that 217,000 households have been waiting in excess of five years for a home. Some 30% of these are concentrated in just four London boroughs, while cities such as Southampton, Blackpool and Edinburgh also face huge backlogs.

The record waiting time is 66 years. The person in question, who first applied to Renfrewshire Council in 1956, has recently confirmed that they are still hoping to get a home.

Missing children

The number of under 16s reported missing in Birmingham has increased by more than 250% in the past five years. A Freedom of Information request to West Midlands Police by BirminghamWorld has shown that the number went up from 906 on September 14, 2017 to 3,241 on September 14, 2022.

As the number of children missing is likely to change from day to day – as individuals are reported missing and then found, this request appears to use two possible measures. There’s asking for the number as of a date – this is a snapshot, but it means each child is only counted once. While the other measure looks at numbers across a year – a better picture of the overall scale, but potentially includes children who have been reported missing more than once.

Child protection committees

Child protection committees in Scotland bring together NHS managers, council bosses and police chiefs. They help monitor and co-ordinate support for society’s most vulnerable youngsters.

However, according to the Press and Journal, concerns have been raised about recent attendance rates in parts of Scotland. So the paper used freedom of information laws, to ask 11 councils to provide an attendance list – which they did, apart from Aberdeen.

The city council refused, saying the committee members were not aware that such information could be released, and that it could identify them. But the job titles of the committee members are already published online.

Disability benefits stopped

Thousands of disabled people have had their benefits paused during extended hospital stays. Under the rule, people who claim Personal Independence Payment (PIP) have their payments suspended if they receive care in hospital for 28 days or more.

The BBC Shared Data Unit analysed figures released under the Freedom of Information Act over the past three years.

It found:

  • The total number of PIP suspensions under the hospitalisation rule in Great Britain increased from 30,860 in the quarter to the end of April 2020, to 45,850 in the quarter to the end of April 2022 The highest numbers of PIP suspensions were for people with mental health conditions
  • One affected family lost more than £5,000 in benefit payments while their disabled son was in hospital.

The government says it costs the state twice to pay benefits to patients.

Student mental health

A freedom of information request submitted by Scottish Labour has revealed that across 10 universities, 14,920 students applied for help with their mental health in 2020/21.

Almost every university reported a sharp increase in the number of mental health support requests, the FOI found, The Herald reports.

Hospital parking

A total of 8,172 parking charge notices have been issued at Royal Oldham, the Oldham Times reports.

A combined total was given for Fairfield General Hospital and Rochdale Infirmary, with 2,830 notices issued. Salford Royal had the least, at 543.

The Northern Care Alliance, which runs the hospital as well as Salford Royal Hospital, Rochdale Infirmary and Fairfield General Hospital, revealed the figure in response to a request from a member of the public.

Autism assessment waits

Almost half of children awaiting an autism assessment have been doing so for more than a year – with hundreds more waiting upwards of four years, The Herald reports.

Data obtained by the Scottish Conservatives using freedom of information legislation shows that of the 12,500 children referred for an autism spectrum disorder (ASD) assessment and still awaiting one, 5,700 have been waiting more than 12 months. One in five children – 2,180 – have waited more than two years, while 240 have waited more than four years, according to the figures.

Dangerous Dogs

This is a great example of why it’s a good idea to check the disclosure log (if you find a public body organised enough to keep one up to date).

A Freedom of Information (FOI) request, published by Essex Police, has revealed the number of dogs seized by the force so far this year. Police have seized 44 dogs in Essex this year, to the end of September. The force also revealed 53 dogs seized under the Dangerous Dogs Act have been put down this year, the highest figure since 2018.

Another FOI request at the start of the year has revealed all the types of dogs seized for being “dangerously out of control” from 2019 to 2021, the Echo reports. The most common were Staffordshire Bull Terriers, 18 in 2019, nine in 2020, 15 in 2021, and German Shepherds, four in 2019, six in 2020, eight in 2021.

Driving test fails

Thousands of learners fail their driving test each year before they have even left the test centre.

Figures from the Driver and Vehicle Standards Agency show 43,931 learners came a cropper for not moving off safely in the nine months to March this year, the Mirror reports. Moving off safely involves checking for other vehicles and pedestrians, using the mirrors and indicators, driving at the right speed in the right gear – and not hitting another vehicle.

Around 500 people a year also fail before they even get in the car because they are unable to read a number plate from 20 metres away.

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