Freedom of Information in the news – week ending 28/4/2023 – #FOIFriday

Chase that late Freedom of Information request. It’s official, you’re not being unreasonable.

That view comes from a recent First Tier Tribunal decision. The Information Rights Tribunal ruled South Yorkshire Police was wrong to dismiss as vexatious freedom of information requests from a disgraced former MP.

Jared O’Mara had made dozens of requests under the Freedom of Information Act, many overlapping and “of a confusing nature”. South Yorkshire Police rejected a request for information on charging referrals, believing O’Mara was deliberately intending to cause disruption and annoyance. However, the tribunal found that O’Mara’s motive was not to cause disruption but to obtain information, and that his later requests had “all the characteristics one might wish”.

Saying it had not been shown any chasing correspondence that was unreasonable, the tribunal judges noted: ‘The burden of being chased for missing a deadline can be avoided by not missing it in the first place.’

So chase those late requests (politely). Sometimes (see Schools Week vs the Cabinet Office below) it might take a lot of chasing but it will hopefully be worth it in the end.

Buying influence

Public bodies run advertising and marketing campaigns for a variety of reasons. And plenty may be opting to spend the money for these on influencer campaigns as the best way of reaching target audiences. So it’s worth asking how much they’re paying out.

The Cabinet Office has revealed that it paid TV presenter Kirsty Gallacher £10,000 and Dr Philippa Kaye £3,000 to promote its £3.6m back-to-school campaign after lockdown. This information was disclosed following a two-and-a-half year battle by Schools Week.

In November 2020, Schools Week submitted a Freedom of Information request on the costs. However, the Cabinet Office claimed disclosure would “prejudice the commercial interests” of the department, celebrities and MullenLowe Group, the advertising company involved. The ICO last year ordered the Cabinet Office to disclose influencer pay. The Cabinet Office finally revealed this information 890 days later.

School traffic

An average of 58 penalty charge notices (PCNs) were issued to drivers by Enfield Council on each school day in January for breaking traffic restrictions imposed to protect school pupils, the Enfield Dispatch reports.

Data obtained under the Freedom of Information Act revealed that 15,054 PCNs have been issued, amounting to over £725,000 in fines, with only 336 being successfully appealed. The traffic restrictions were imposed to reduce air pollution and boost road safety around 14 different school streets where automatic numberplate recognition (ANPR) cameras have been installed to restrict motor traffic.

Asbestos in schools

More than 130 buildings owned by Wirral Council, including 55 schools, still contain toxic asbestos, the Wirral Globe reports. That’s according to data obtained through a Freedom of Information request. The council-owned buildings containing asbestos on the Wirral include Birkenhead and Wallasey Town Halls, Woodchurch Leisure Centre, Birkenhead Market, The Oval Sports centre, a number of libraries, and cemeteries.

Asbestos, which was banned in the UK in 1999, can lead to diseases such as lung cancer and mesothelioma if inhaled. The council said it carries out regular inspections of asbestos in its buildings.

Stray dogs

I’m not sure the list of streets with the most strays found works here. The issue is once you take out those handed in to vets or the city kennels, it just ends up being a list of where more than one dog was found. However, the overall figures could potentially work for stories in other places.

According to figures obtained via Freedom of Information requests from Sheffield City Council, 1,463 stray dogs were found across the city and put in the pound between 2018 and 2022. More than half (850) were reclaimed. A further 319 were adopted and 245 were rescued. The finder of the dog ended up keeping it on 21 occasions, the dog was left in kennels 11 times, and the dog was sadly put to sleep in 17 instances.

Cutting nappy waste

This one may not need an FOI. You’d hope if councils are running schemes they’d be publicising them, but plenty of council websites are confusing, out of date, or otherwise impenetrable. It potentially works as a story either to publicise a local scheme or start a campaign to get one.

Labour MSP Monica Lennon has criticized the lack of progress made in expanding reusable nappy schemes across Scotland, as only five out of 32 councils offer such initiatives. The figures revealed using FOI show the figure unchanged on last year, the Daily Record reports.

Single-use disposable nappies are a “huge expense” for families and also the taxpayer in terms of landfill costs, Lennon said. She hailed the pioneering work of some areas such as North Ayrshire, which became the first council to introduce free “birth to potty” reusable nappies for parents in 2019.

Trip hazard

Got a new local road feature that’s causing consternation? It might be worth sending an FOI to see if it’s causing problems serious enough to come the local council’s attention.

An “optical illusion” cycle lane installed in Keynsham, Somerset, has caused 59 injuries since it was opened in March 2021, according to freedom of information figures obtained by councillor Alan Hale. One person who fell described the cycle lane as an “optical illusion” as there were kerbs and painted white lines which looked similar to each other.

A total of 21 people are pursuing personal injury claims against Bath and North East Somerset Council. Seven have been rejected, but the remainder are still under investigation, Somerset Live reports. The lane was opened along the high street after nine months of work, and some people have called for it to be removed.

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