Freedom of Information in the news – week ending 24/3/2023 – #FOIFriday

This Friday, FOI your local council.

They’re responsible for lots of services that people rely on (and get very annoyed about). Like social care, education and housing, as well as pothole repairs, litter and flytipping prevention, and parking. They’re responsible for food hygiene and trading standards…and licencing people to keep dangerous wild animals.

There’s a wealth of potential stories from freedom of information – and a few ideas in this week’s round-up.

(Obviously if you’re in England, unitary authorities and London boroughs are responsible for everything but you need to check before you send your request whether the county or the borough/district council is responsible for the service area you’re interested in).

Council Tax non-payment

Council Tax goes up next week so now might be a good time to check your local councillors have been paying theirs.

The city council has named a Derby councillor who had not paid council tax after a 10-month battle for transparency. Derby City Council had refused to disclose the name of the councillor and the amount they owed but now these details can be revealed after the authority was ordered to release them.

Cllr Gulfraz Nawaz, who has represented the Arboretum ward for Labour since 2012, had owed £1,273.57 as of the time of the Freedom of Information request filed by the Local Democracy Reporting Service (LDRS) in May 2022, DerbyLive reports. Cllr Nawaz has since paid his council tax arrears.

This is also a good reminder that councillors with arrears of more than two months are not allowed to vote on the council budget. There’s also, following an Upper Tier Tribunal decision, a general presumption that councillors in this group can be named. This story includes a decision to not name a High Peaks councillor based on their individual circumstances, but refusals for information like this are worth challenging as mostly they should named.

Pothole payouts

It’s a good (or bad) time of year for potholes. The winter freeze/thaw/downpours have usually added a few more or made the current ones worse, and most councils don’t have enough money to keep on top of them.

Cambridgeshire County Council paid £16,000 in its highest pothole payout of the last two years, a freedom of information (FoI) request has revealed. The figure was a claim from a pothole injury which occurred on the county’s roads and walkways – and was awarded in 2021, the Hunts Post reports.

Injuries were also behind the second and third highest claims, which were for £6,650 and £4,130 respectively. It is not known where the incidents happened exactly.

In total, Cambridgeshire County Council has paid out more than £96,000 in pothole claims over the last two years.

Not so temporary lights

A set of ‘temporary’ traffic lights have celebrated their fifth birthday – after costing taxpayers nearly £125,000.

The edge of the carriageway on a section of the B4521 near Skenfrith, South Wales fell away due to subsidence in March 2018. Cones were placed around the part of the carriageway where the tarmac fell away and the traffic lights control the flow around the area.

Local Green Councillor Ian Chandler put in an FOI about the lights and found out that hiring the lights has cost £124,507 until the end of 2022, ThisisMoney reports.

Wrong fuel

This one works for any public body that runs a fleet of vehicles.

More than £10,000 in taxpayers’ cash has been spent on repairs after the wrong fuel was put in police cars across the West Midlands, CoventryLive reports. The FOI request shows that between 2017 and 2021 there were 51 instances of the wrong fuel being put in vehicles, which cost £10,464.60 to rectify.

The request asked what measures had been put in place to stop this and the response said that, as part of vehicle build specification, there are fuel stickers placed on filler flaps (Petrol or Diesel).

Out of date kit

NHS hospitals are being forced to rely on outdated X-ray machines, CT scanners and radiotherapy machines, with some bits of vital kit dating back to the 1980s. Some 541 pieces of critical diagnostic equipment are over a decade old, according to figures from 69 NHS hospital trusts released under freedom of information laws.

NHS England advises that CT and MRI scanners – which provide snapshots of tumours and joint injuries – and X-ray machines should be replaced every ten years. But an X-ray machine owned by Bedfordshire Hospitals Trust is a staggering 37 years old, the Mirror reports.

Wild animals

More than 70 dangerous wild animals are privately owned in Wiltshire. A herd of bison, venomous snakes and leopards are all being kept by owners with licences under the Dangerous Wild Animals Act 1976, WiltshireLive reports.

These licences do not include animals kept in a zoo, circus or pet shop. There are currently five Dangerous Wild Animals licences held within the Wiltshire Council area.

The full list, revealed through a Freedom of Information request, includes two common brown lemurs and one collared brown lemur being kept in north Wiltshire and 47 American plains bison in south Wiltshire.

There are three Bactrian camels in south Wiltshire and three ocelots, five Asian leopards, one serval, four wolves and three ring-tailed lemurs being kept in west Wiltshire. In addition, one king cobra, one Siamese Peninsular pit viper, one Pope’s pit viper, one Hagen’s pit viper are all being kept in north Wiltshire.

TikTok Ads

Governments across the UK are banning TikTok from official phones. But it might be worth keeping an eye on whether they keep spending on TikTok advertising or for staff or contractors to produce content for the platform (another area worth FOI-ing is spending on influencers).

The Welsh Government spent £153K on TikTok last year, North Wales Live reports. TikTok now has been banned from the work phones of Welsh Government civil servants and ministers. It follows a review by the National Cyber Security Centre and a similar move by UK Government.

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