You are currently viewing Freedom of Information in the news – week ending 27/1/2023 – #FOIFriday

Freedom of Information in the news – week ending 27/1/2023 – #FOIFriday

FOI is great, it gives you access to unpublished information. However, that information can be incomplete, unclear, limited, or just rubbish.

Last week’s story about five year waits for diagnostic treatment has ended up as a local row, with the health board refuting claims that people are waiting that long (this is also a political row, because it’s Scotland and some weeks it feels like all the FOIs there are sent by opposition parties).

Issues like this can come from poorly defined freedom of information requests or misinterpretation by the public body (the requester was probably looking for pre-treatment diagnostic tests, the health board seems to have included scheduled follow-up tests) or limited information held that doesn’t easily answer the request (there’s a story based on keywords in crimes in this week’s round-up that can run into this kind of problem).

Tim Turner has a good thread on why it can be helpful for public bodies to add a bit of context when they send our responses.

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Rising rents

Russell Group universities have increased rents at some student halls by more than £1,000 since the start of the pandemic, The Telegraph has revealed.

Average annual rents for student halls at those universities have risen by about a fifth between 2018-19 and 2022-23 to £9,177 at UCL, £6,125 at Glasgow and £6,335 at Leeds, Freedom of Information requests have shown.

Homeless hotels

Harrogate Borough Council is spending £25,000 a month on temporary hotels and bed and breakfasts for homeless people, a freedom of information request has revealed.

The council, which has a statutory duty to prevent homelessness, is paying individual hotels up to £126 a night because its hostels are full, the Stray Ferret reports.

Calls for help unanswered

Suicidal patients in England are being put at risk of serious harm, with one in five calls to NHS helplines going unanswered, BBC research shows. One caller said after repeatedly trying to get through, staff eventually told her to “think happy thoughts”.

Coroners have expressed fears over how patients are assessed. One man who died told staff he wanted to end his life, but was not referred for support.

Figures collated by the BBC through Freedom of Information requests, from 29 of the 47 mental health trusts with crisis lines, show that at least 418,000 calls went unanswered in 2021/22. That means 20% of calls to these trusts weren’t answered – with some areas performing far better than others.

Long Covid

A Freedom of Information (FOI) request submitted to City of York Council asked the authority how many days it had lost to long Covid.

A spokesperson for the council said that the council had lost 500 days to the virus – and that 13 staff had been hit by it since December 2021, The Press reports.

The council spokesperson said: “As reported in our FOI response we have lost 500 days to long Covid since December 2021. Fortunately, that has only ever affected just 13 staff – with current numbers significantly lower.

School stress

Opposition parties in Scotland are really enthusiastic users of FOI – this story has two requests from different parties.

Figures obtained via Freedom of Information requests by the Scottish Tories reveal 6,670 teachers and school staff were absent from work for mental-health reasons in 2021/2022. This was a rise of 181 on the previous year and took the total number of staff signed off for stress-related conditions in the last five years to 28,034, the Scottish Daily Express reports.

And statistics from the Scottish Liberal Democrats suggest more than 300,000 staff days have been lost in the past two years in Scotland’s schools and nurseries as a result of mental ill health. Their Freedom of Information requests from 31 of Scotland’s 32 councils showed 310,739 sick days were taken among teachers, support staff and nursery staff between April 2021 and October last year.

More police misconduct

Every force in the country likely has some stories like this, and most of them are going to be asked about them using FOI in the next few weeks.

Thirteen Staffordshire Police officers against whom complaints ranging from domestic abuse to “sexual misconduct” were upheld were allowed to keep their jobs. They were among 36 who faced such allegations over the last five years – complaints that resulted in nine separate criminal investigations, but only one conviction, Stoke on Trent Live reports.

Under Freedom of Information legislation, the force was asked for details of all allegations of “domestic abuse and sexual misconduct (including rape)”, and in response Staffordshire Police said a total of 36 complaints had been made. Of those, 20 resulted in the complaint not being upheld by the force’s Professional Standards Department, or no action being taken. Two officers were asked to undergo “reflective practice”.

The force says in total, 17 of the staff about whom complaints were made remain on the payroll.

Stray dogs

Almost three-quarters of all the stray dogs euthanised in Kent in the last four years were in just three boroughs, figures have revealed. Information obtained from Freedom of Information requests show 44 strays have been put to sleep across the county after being taken in by councils since 2018, KentOnline reports.

Almost half of the county’s 6,263 strays have not been returned to their owners by councils since 2018.

Red flags

More than 20 addresses in Fife have been ‘red-flagged’ by ambulance crews – meaning they won’t attend without a police presence.

The figure was revealed in a Freedom of Information request to the Scottish Ambulance Service. Lodged by Scottish Conservatives, it showed over 450 addresses across Scotland had been red flagged, with 22 in Fife, Fife Today reports.

Weapons in schools

An effective keyword search FOI, but one that still comes with some limitations.

A Freedom of Information (FOI) request, published by Essex Police, revealed the number of offensive weapons found in educational establishments over a period of five years. Police have found 242 offensive weapons in schools, academies and colleges in Essex from December 1 2016 to November 30 2021, the Echo reports.

The force has noted the way the information is gathered means, in some instances, the location data for School/Academy/College may not be in reference to an educational establishment and could be the name of a road. For example, if an offence took place in ‘School Road’ this will be returned in the filtered results.  

Parking ticket hotspot

Another take on the parking ticket hotspot FOI – where you ask the council either for information on all the tickets issued with location or you ask for a count by road. This looks at how tickets are issued at a disproportionately higher number in some roads than others.

A north London council has made £1.8m from driving fines on one road over two years, figures released to the BBC reveal. The council made £13m in total across Harrow.

More than 24,500 fines have been handed out on Camrose Avenue, which runs from the A5109 to Taunton Way in Harrow, averaging out as 34 issued a day. Data from a Freedom of Information request showed 42% of tickets issued and 47% of all money made by the council for driving fines over the two years comes from just 10 roads across the borough.

Fewer stolen mobiles

Used to write about a particular type of crime all the time, but now it doesn’t seem so common? Might be worth an FOI to find out how many reports are being made.

A Freedom of Information (FOI) request to West Yorkshire Police revealed the number of phone thefts in the area covered by the Bradford City Neighbourhood Policing Team (NPT) from the start of 2018 to the end of 2022. According to the FOI, there were 165 mobile phones stolen in the Bradford City NPT area last year – of which 157 incidents were recorded as crimes, the Telegraph and Argus reports.

This number was only ever so slightly down from 2021, when 166 phones were stolen in the NPT area, with 163 of those incidents recorded as crimes. 2020 saw 206 phones stolen in the NPT area, and 156 of those incidents were recorded as crimes. The 2019 figure stood at 370 phones stolen (328 crimes) while 2018 had the highest yearly total, with 475 (343 crimes).

Rain stops play

Thankfully not more electric vehicles bursting into flames, more the opposite problem where they don’t work properly when wet.

Two electric bin lorries bought by City of York Council in a bid to cut carbon emissions were unable to operate when it rained, the BBC reports. Data from a freedom of information (FOI) request showed there was just one month – November 2021 – when both vehicles were on the road every day.

Rain caused the wagons to be taken off the city’s roads for up to 26 days a month several times last year. The vehicles stopped working for a combined total of 481 days between January 2021 and November 2022.

The council bought the vehicles in 2020 as part of its drive to achieve net zero emissions by 2030. Head of environmental services Ben Grabham said there had been “a few reliability issues”.

Image by Tima Miroshnichenko on Pexels

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