Freedom of Information in the news – week ending 17/3/2023 – #FOIFriday

One of the biggest problems with Freedom of Information requests is that they aren’t quick. Sometimes a response will come back really quickly but expecting to have to wait a good chunk of the 20 working days limit (and probably a bit beyond that) is probably a reasonable expectation.

As such it can sometimes feel like public bodies are trying to avoid having to answer questions by making journalists use FOI to get answers. KentLive highlighted complaints about a lack of patient car parking spaces at Tunbridge Wells Hospital, so bosses added an extra 50. But those seem to be taken from staff parking space.

Previously the site had 447 spaces for visitors and 818 for staff, a total of 1,265. The hospital trust would not tell KentLive how many parking spaces it had for staff and visitors and said it must submit a Freedom of Information request.

It’s a good way of delaying the story (possibly for a long time) but it may also be an opportunity for journalists to get access to more detailed information than would be given in a quick answer from the press office.

And while it can be a way of delaying the question, as responding to FOIs is a statutory responsibility, it means avoiding answering the question completely isn’t an option. So if the story stays newsworthy it can mean the information comes out anyway in the end – with added detail and the potential extra embarrassment of trying to avoid answering the questions.

Inappropriate ambulance workers

Insiders at the trust have told EssexLive about their own experiences claiming that staff have taken pictures of patients in a vulnerable position and shared inappropriate messages discussing colleagues in a WhatsApp group. EssexLive first reported on an internal investigation being launched by EEAST in May 2022. The trust had previously repeatedly refused to say exactly how many people were suspended and what action was taken against them.

A Freedom of Information request (FOI) by EssexLive can now reveal 22 staff members were suspended. A maximum of five people were dismissed immediately due to their involvement in the group. Eleven staff members received their final written warning. Six more received their first written warning. No more than five people had ‘no case to answer’.

Inappropriate firefighters

Information obtained by the Daily Echo, via a Freedom of Information request, shows 13 operational staff, as well as three corporate staff, at Dorset and Wiltshire Fire and Rescue Service (DWFRS) have been suspended for inappropriate behaviour since April 2017, with nine going on to be sacked.

Reasons for dismissal include breaches of substance misuse procedure, criminal proceedings and/or convictions and failure to comply with reasonable work instructions.

Nursery place shortage

Sometimes the story is what information isn’t available when you send the FOI.

While the majority of councils claim they have sufficient early years places, less than one in six collect information on whether provision is meeting the needs of local families, Nursery World reports.

The Early Years Alliance submitted FOI requests to all upper-tier local authorities in England. Of the 117 councils that responded, a total of 96 per cent said they had sufficient early years places in their area overall, however less than one in six collect data on the proportion of local parents who are able to access the number of days/sessions they need, when they need it and where they need it.

School collapse

This is a good example of following up an issue affecting one part of the public sector in a lot of detail.

ITV News has found 68 schools have Reinforced Autoclaved Aerated Concrete (RAAC) – a potentially dangerous, lightweight, building material that was predominantly used in roofs between the 1960s and the 1980s.

The true number is likely to be higher, as our freedom of information request to 5,882 schools in England has revealed 1,466 schools built between the 1960s and the 1980s do not know whether they have RAAC, because they haven’t been checked.

That’s despite a national safety warning being issued in 2018 after the roof of a primary school in Kent made of RAAC collapsed with no warning. Fortunately, it occurred at a weekend when the building was empty and it has since been fixed.

Cannabis factory fires

The Daily Echo reports that fire crews were called out to ten incidents at cannabis factories between January 2019 and the end of 2022. 

Data obtained through a Freedom of Information Act (FOI) request shows that these involved faulty electrics, overheating, a heat source and combustibles being brought together deliberately, and even cooking. Three of these fires were in Southampton – two of which were deliberate.

Never events

Surgical staff gave the wrong patient a biopsy while a vaginal swab was left inside a woman during a hospital procedure, it has been revealed.

Five so-called ‘never events’ occurred at the under-pressure East Kent University Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust (EKHUFT) over nine months last year. Kent Online reports. The data, released under a Freedom of Information (FOI) request, does not go into further detail, such as which hospital each incident took place at.

Missed meals

A Freedom of Information request by CoventryLive found that approximately 43,542 meals were recorded as wasted between January 1, 2022, and November 20, 2022. It represents 6.4 per cent of meals ordered.

A spokesman for UHCW said the food wastage was due to the fact that patients may be taking medication which means they may no longer want or be able to eat their meals. A number of other ‘extenuating factors’ were also blamed.

Crime at McDonald’s

Staff at fast-food chain McDonald’s were subjected to more than 900 assaults last year, the Daily Mail reports. A Freedom of Information request made by revealed workers at 1,270 restaurants across the UK were throttled, punched, kicked and attacked with chemical sprays. 

And it’s not just staff that have been attacked. Customers have also been knifed, punched and bitten, with the majority of incidents being recorded at night. 

Overcrowded homes

Statistics released by Fife Council after a Freedom of Information request from the Scottish Liberal Democrats show that 2,235 social homes are occupied by more people than they are intended to house.

This represents seven per cent of the 30,894 social homes which are managed under the Fife Housing Register, the Dunfermline Press reports.

Winter Wonderland of crime

This FOI idea could be applied to any kind of major public event in your area (many cities run similar festive season events).

Assaults, sex attacks, robbery, drugs and firearms possession are among the 790 offences recorded by police at Winter Wonderland over the last five years it has run. In the last year alone, the Metropolitan Police recorded 135 offences at the festive family-friendly attraction in Hyde Park, data obtained through freedom of information requests has revealed.

This was up six from the previous year, which saw 129 offences reported, although from 2018 to 2021 the number had been falling, the Daily Mail reports. The most common type of crime plaguing the venue is theft, with 492 offences recorded since November 2017.

More than 15 million people have attended Winter Wonderland over the last five events.

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