Freedom of Information in the news – week ending 31/3/2023 – #FOIFriday

This week’s FOI news could make it easier (and quicker) for you to get the answers you want from your Freedom of Information requests. The Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) has announced how it will prioritise Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) complaints that have significant public interest.

With complaints potentially taking months to resolve, it was hard to use FOI to get information about current events (and it gave some unscrupulous public bodies the opportunity to try to avoid scrutiny by delaying and issuing spurious refusals). The ICO now aims to allocate priority cases within four weeks and fast-track 15-20% of its caseload (it has at times take six to 12 months just to get your complaint to a case officer).

In addition, it’s targeting closing 90% of all the cases it receives within six months (up from its previous target of 80%). However, presumably, this would include complaints about responses not sent within 20 working days (which are straightforward (and usually quick) to resolve) and complaints resolved informally (there are some pros and cons to that one!).

So, what counts as significant public interest? Think topics with lots of media attention, the spending of large sums of public money, and/or issues that impact on vulnerable groups or individuals. A deadline on the usefulness of the information may be also a factor – so public consultations, court cases and inquiries.

Round robins are mentioned but it’s alongside complaints that may serve as test cases – where a Decision Notice may help resolve other complaints more quickly (and clear the ICO backlog as well).

Plus, it helps if the requester is passionate about using the information to benefit the public. This part probably weighs towards journalists – the requester is raising awareness around a topic of significant public interest and has a platform to share the information with the wider public. 

So what issues of public interest are being uncovered and shared with the wider community in this week’s FOI stories?

Eviction Ban Fails to Protect Homeless

The Scottish government’s halt on evictions is “failing to protect those most at risk of homelessness”.

Although temporary restrictions on evicting tenants came into force in September, at least 125 social housing tenants have been evicted from their homes since then, a Freedom of Information request by BBC Scotland has revealed. The protection against eviction does not apply to those with arrears of six months or more or to social housing tenants with debts of more than £2,250.

Homeless Families Moved Out for Six Nations Bookings

Dozens of homeless families were moved out of hotels to make room for tourists’ Six Nations bookings, according to a Freedom of Information request by WalesOnline. During the two weekends when home matches were hosted in Cardiff this year, families and individuals without a permanent home were moved out of the city.

For the weekend including February 4 (the Wales v Ireland game), 13 families comprising 52 individuals needed to move out of Cardiff due to the game, and for the weekend including February 25 (the Wales v England game), 28 families comprising 103 individuals needed to move out of Cardiff due to the game.

Number of homeless people housed in hotels rises in Glasgow

The number of homeless people housed in hotels in Glasgow has increased to over 700 this month, according to FOI figures. The number in temporary accommodation has increased to over 6,600.

The data shows a continual increase, with more and more people put up in hotels and others in temporary accommodation, the Glasgow Times reports. At the start of this month, there were 701 homeless people living in hotels or B&B accommodation in Glasgow. It is an increase from 625 last July, by October it has risen to 680.

Sean Clerkin, campaign co-ordinator for Scottish Tenants Organisation, asked for the data under freedom of information. He said the rise was “shameful and disgusting”.

£65 Million Unclaimed from Household Support Fund

According to official figures obtained through a Freedom of Information request, around £65 million remains unclaimed from the Household Support Fund, with the amount unclaimed exceeding £1 million for multiple councils, the Mirror reports. The fund provided local authorities with a cut of a £500 million cash pot to help those most in need with the rising cost of living.

The current scheme, which was worth £421million, was originally going to close at the end of this month. However, the Government announced that it was to be extended for the fourth time to help struggling households with the high cost of living.

Councils with the most still to give away:

  • Lancashire County Council – £6,085,815
  • Essex County Council – £5,296,663 (fully committed for projects)
  • Derbyshire County Council – £4,351,200 (expect all of this to be spent by the end of March 2023)
  • Surrey County Council – £3,641,148.41
  • West Sussex County Council – £3,027,131.11

Autistic students more likely to drop out of university

According to an investigation by the North East Autism Society, autistic undergraduate students are more likely to drop out of university or interrupt their studies than any other group.

Among those who enrolled in 2019, 36% of autistic undergraduate students did not complete their degree after three years, compared to 29% for the general student population, and higher than any other disability group. Freedom of Information requests have been submitted to five North-East universities to find out what their dropout rates are for autistic students, the Northern Echo reports.

The founder of research institute Disabled Students UK, Mette Anwar-Westander, said that one of the main issues is that autistic students don’t consistently receive the adjustments to which they are legally entitled.

West Midlands’ street racing hotspots revealed

An investigation has revealed that boy racers have taken over some of the West Midlands’ busiest roads hundreds of times over the last two years, putting motorists and pedestrians in danger. The roads that are overtaken by nuisance boy racers include Kenrick Way in West Bromwich, which is the West Midlands’ street racing hotspot, according to an FOI from BirminghamLive.

Various measures have been imposed to tackle the problem, including car cruising bans and the trial of special noise-detecting cameras. However, street racing is still a major problem in the region. Earlier this month, reckless drivers were posting footage of themselves racing and performing risky stunts on Birmingham roads.

Couple Fined £400 for Bin Collection Blunder

A couple from London was fined £400 for “fly tipping” because they put their bins out at the wrong time. Carla Grande and John Rowe, from Walthamstow, London, were slapped with the massive fine for “fly tipping” – prompting them to challenge the council over the fine.

The filmmaker and her partner put their bins outside at the wrong time of day after mistakenly consulting part of the council’s website which does not show specific collection times, the Mirror reports. After numerous emails to 3GS, the council, her local councillors and MP, Carla said the council agreed to reduce the couple’s fine to £150, the amount issued for littering offences.

Figures obtained under freedom of information laws show that, in 2022, 3GS and the council issued 4,751 fines for “litter-related offences”. Just over half of those fines have been paid, bringing in only £362,500 – a significant drop from the £1.2m made in 2021.

Derby Council Raises Over £1.7 Million in Bus Lane Fines

Derby City Council raised more than £1.7 million in fines from a city centre bus lane in just over a year by issuing more than 54,000 fines to motorists illegally using the Corporation Street bus lane, DerbyLive reports. The £1.7 million figure raised is the amount recorded from April 2020 when the bus lane was first implemented to January 2023. The council only started fining motorists in November 2021.

It had been previously reported that the bus lane scheme had been criticised by motorists for its lack of efficient signage with thousands being caught out and fined. But Derby City Council has insisted its signage has been adequate and has also taken action to improve it. It says the signage meets all the necessary regulatory requirements. 

Noise complaints in Manchester

Manchester residents made 5,454 noise complaints to Manchester City Council last year, according to a Freedom of Information request. The most common reason for complaints across Manchester in 2022 was domestic noise, followed by barking dogs, noisy pubs and students making noise, ManchesterWorld reports.

Complaints also included alarms going off, construction din and roadworks. The figure is down from 2021 when 7,158 people complained about noise nuisance, possibly due to people being home more often during the pandemic.

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