Monday, April 16, 2007

Media update

FOI round-up from the last couple of weeks...


BAE confirms 'support services' deal - FT
"BAE Systems has confirmed that “support services” were paid for and provided to senior Saudi Arabian officials as part of the al-Yamamah arms deal, Britain’s biggest export contract, according to an official account released on Wednesday night. In a letter from BAE’s solicitors to the Serious Fraud Office in November 2005, details of which have emerged under freedom of information laws, the weapons company cast light on the nature of payments at the heart of bribery allegations. But it told the SFO the allegations were unfounded. The disclosure is likely to stoke controversy over the multibillion-pound agreement under which Riyadh paid for British jet fighters."

A third 'will refuse ID checks' - BBC
"One in three people are expected not to cooperate with identity card checks, Home Office papers from 2004 suggest. Papers revealed under information laws show officials have worked on the basis 60% of people who have a card would be expected to carry it with them. They assume another 10% would confirm their ID via fingerprint or eye scans but 30% "will refuse" to voluntarily show their card or biometric data. The Home Office said the documents were "incredibly out of date"...The working assumptions were revealed in documents published by the Department for Work and Pensions under Freedom of Information laws."

The price of candour - The Guardian
"Blair unenthusiastically inherited FoI from John Smith and dragged his feet in 1997. Jack Straw thought he had protected Whitehall via restrictions, notably a class exemption for cabinet papers. But the assiduous FoI campaigner Maurice Frankel got enough "public interest" exceptions inserted to ensure that on March 19 the information tribunal ruled against the Department for Education and Skills on an FoI bid by the Evening Standard about school budgets. It blew away the Treasury's defence against a Times FoI application on pensions. Officials could no longer justify the cost of an appeal against Mr Thomas's public interest ruling that details could be revealed about a 10-year-old policy. It gave a perfect opening to the Brown-bashers. Yet it is an odd case: how often is the same minister in the same post so long?...In this case the (edited) advice was more nuanced than reported. But who cares?."

Why going public would give us better government - FT
"The outrage over publication of confidential advice from UK Treasury officials to Gordon Brown, chancellor of the exchequer...says much about what is wrong with the way Britain is governed today. Officials and politicians reacted with shock and horror and delaying tactics at the very idea of civil service advice, albeit 10 years old, being vouchsafed to the public. Who said Whitehall's culture of secrecy was dead? Instead, Whitehall should resolve to publish more often. Government should take a lead from other countries, notably New Zealand, where civil service advice is regularly published."

Freedom of Information should be left to mature - FT
"The two-year-old Freedom of Information Act remains an immature, squalling infant. Already, however, it has revealed how Iraqi exiles have been paid for bogus intelligence; how government has been complicit in bribery in the arms trade; how the army colluded with loyalist paramilitaries in Northern Ireland; as well as more about how ministers and civil servants balance risks and make policy across a range of issues: pensions included. All that has been good. Good for public accountability. Good for a greater understanding of the process of government. Ministers, Mr Brown included, should put balm on their bruises and leave the act alone to mature."

Criminals' fine debts may top £1bn - Ananova
"Criminals owe more than £111 million in fines and other payments to courts in the London area alone. Figures revealed through the Freedom of Information Act showed 553,500 active accounts were being held by the courts at the end of January. There was a further £4 million owed in 16,500 accounts in Watford and Dorking courts, the figures showed. It could mean the overall sum across England and Wales would top £1 billion. The £115 million owed in London, Watford and Dorking included unpaid fines, legal aid payments, costs and compensation to victims."

Injunction on killers' IDs - Sky News
"The Home Office has spent £13,000 of taxpayers' money preventing overseas magazines from revealing the new identities of the James Bulger killers. Government figures - disclosed under the Freedom of Information Act - showed the sum went on legal fees, VAT and other costs...A Home Office spokeswoman said the spending related to obtaining a specific injunction against a foreign title. The legal bar on identifying them applies in the UK but it would not necessarily apply to magazines overseas."

Warning on school fingerprinting - epolitix
"The vast majority of local education authorities allow children to be fingerprinted by their schools, new figures have revealed. Data released to the Conservatives under the Freedom of Information Act show that only 39 of the 171 LEAs say they do not allow the practice. This means that up to 17,000 thousand schools covering 5.9 million children may be allowed to request fingerprints, said the party. And it warned that some schools are doing this without asking permission."

Patients leaving hospital 'with surgical instruments inside them' - Daily Mail
"Two patients a week are leaving hospital with surgical instruments still inside them, it was revealed yesterday. Over the last three years, the Health Service has paid £4.3 million over a series of claims by patients that doctors have left foreign bodies under their skin. The list of lost implements includes swabs, a catheter, a metal clip and a contraceptive coil, according to data obtained under the Freedom of Information Act."

FOI restrictions unncecessary, Info Commissioner says - OUT-LAW News
"The government would not need to limit the scope of the Freedom of Information (FOI) Act if public authorities used existing rules properly, the Information Commissioner's Office (ICO) has said. The ICO is opposing the government's changes. The gvernment wants to limit the scope and number of FOI enquiries by changing the cost structure currently in place. In response to a consultation process the ICO said the government's stated aims could be achieved under existing rules and that the proposed changes would make the operation of the Act more difficult."

Crisis as 6,000 police quit force - Daily Express
"In figures requested under the Freedom of Information Act, Police Review discovered that more than 2,714 officers had left in the calendar year 2006 alone. The figure climbed above 6,000 when statistics for the previous two years were taken into account. Last year, the force which saw most departures was Scotland Yard, which lost 363 officers. The Police Service of Northern Ireland saw 330 resign, Greater Manchester lost 209 and West Midlands 130."

Trivial pursuit - Society Guardian
"The problem is intolerance of the business of government, which, like any business, depends on free and privileged exchanges between adults...The FOI act has been conscripted as another bludgeon with which to beat about the head those who wield public powers."

Universities accused of cruel animal tests - Independent
"Universities were accused today of conducting "cruel and unnecessary" tests on animals using banned drugs such as cocaine and amphetamines. A report from the British Union for the Abolition of Vivisection (BUAV) also attacks the Home Office for granting licences for the research. An estimated £10m had been spent on the experiments in the past decade, said BUAV, which based its findings on figures obtained under the Freedom of Information Act."

Revealed: plight of Chessington's gorillas - Independent
"At London Zoo, visitors these days marvel at the new £5.3m Gorilla Kingdom which replicates a forest clearing and incorporates heated rocks and a waterfall. But only a few miles away, gorillas are not living in the same luxury at London's second biggest zoo, Chessington World of Adventures. Far from it. Two unpublished official reports obtained by The Independent under freedom of information legislation have expressed grave concern at conditions for the zoo's western lowland gorillas. The local authority has issued the theme park with an ultimatum - to build a new home for the primates, or risk losing its licence."


Freedom of Information growing in popularity - The Westmorland Gazette
"Hundreds of people across Cumbria have used their powers under the Freedom of Information Act to quiz their civic leaders...At the end of last year, 267 people had used the FOI Act to quiz Cumbria County Council...A variety of topics were covered, but the most common were the environment, including roads and highways, which accounted for 18 per cent of questions; personnel, 15 per cent; administration, 14 per cent; finance, 13 per cent; and education, 12 per cent. Private individuals accounted for 60 per cent of questions, while 22 per cent came from businesses, 14 per cent from the media, and four per cent from interest groups."

Port Authority told to release LNG papers - Western Telegraph
"The Information Commissioner has ordered Milford Haven Port Authority to release documents it has tried to keep out of the public domain...A Freedom of Information Act request in January 2005 asked MHPA for a copy of any risk assessments on which its advice to planning authorities about the safety of LNG shipping in Milford Haven was based....The natural gas pipeline running from Milford Haven has also run into trouble after a High Court judge ruled a decision to grant planning permission for a terminal at Cilfrew, near Neath, was unlawful."

Letters expose health chiefs' fear - Sutton Coldfield Observer
"'Excellent' was how their relationship was described to the public. But in private - as seen in letters obtained under the Freedom of Information Act - a different picture has emerged of health bosses' attitude to the trust that will swallow Good Hope. The majority of the letters seen by the Observer - dated last year - come from the PCT's chief executive to her HEFT [Heart of England Foundation Trust] counterpart. One letter states: "In areas where I had understood we shared a common project to improve services and health, we are seeing an abject failure to make progress." Another suggests HEFT practice leaves the PCT with 'little hope of effectively serving our very disadvantaged and under-funded population'."

Council staff rises by third - Oxford Mail
"The number of staff employed by Oxfordshire County Council has jumped by almost a third over the past decade. In March 1997, County Hall - the biggest employer in Oxfordshire - had 15,947 on its payroll. But by March last year, the latest figures available, that number had grown to 20,819 - an increase of 4,872. The figures, obtained using the Freedom of Information Act, take into account all staff, including part-time and job share employees. County Hall said the rise was largely explained by an increase in teaching posts, more duties and responsibilities being given by the Government and services being taken back by the council, like Cogges Museum in Witney."

KCC ignored expert advice over US flights plan - Kent Messenger
"Kent County Council pressed ahead with its failed flights plan to America despite missing key deadlines that consultants said were vital to the scheme's success. Documents released to the Kent Messenger Group have revealed how county council chiefs were told tickets for the weekly charter service from Kent International Airport at Manston to Virginia should go on sale "at least a year" before the launch. In fact, a series of delays meant tickets only went on sale just seven months before the service was due to get underway."

Escapes from Oakington soaring - Cambridge Evening News
"The number of escapes from Oakington immigration centre rocketed last year, the News can reveal. In 2005 there were just four escapes and four attempted escapes, but last year the figure soared, with 19 escapes and seven attempts to break out. The full scale of the problem has become clear after a Freedom of Information request by the News, and follows two recent escapes by immigrants being held at the base...A Home Office spokesman...said "There has been a small rise in the number of absconds from Oakington Immigration Removal Centre between 2005 and 2006. This is in part due to Oakington now holding more immigration offenders who are detained pending removal."

Big brother is watching and selling pictures - Ham & High
"Shocking details about the controversial My Camden website - which allows web users to see detailed pictures of residents' homes - have been discovered by the Ham&High. Papers obtained from a Freedom of Information request show photo supplier Cyclomedia is allowed to reproduce or sell any of the images to anyone who requests them...Following complaints from residents, one e-mail sent between council officers Ben White and Martin Black said: "We did not take a legal view on whether the images should be displayed or not as we never considered that people would see this as an infringement rather than a useful service."

Collapsing mines still a threat - Eastern Daily Press
"It was a picture which made headlines around the world. But nearly two decades after a number 26 bus fell into a gaping hole in the centre of Norwich caused by a collapsed chalk mine, council chiefs admit old wounds could be reopened in other parts of the city. City council documents released under the freedom of information act reveal how the authority kept a top 10 of areas where subsidence has occurred.They are around Ber Street, Churchill Road, Earlham Road at the city and ring road end, Ketts Hill, Plumstead Estate, Rosary Road, St Stephens Road, Merton Road and Mousehold Street."

On-spot fines go unpaid - Nottingham Evening Post
"More than one-third of all on-the-spot fines given to yobs in Notts go unpaid. The fines of up to £80 for drunks, shoplifters and vandals aim to dish out rapid justice and avoid the lengthy process of taking offenders to court. But only 62% of fines in Notts were paid within the 21-day deadline in 2005/06, new figures reveal. If the money is not paid on time, responsibility for chasing the cash is passed on to the courts - an extra burden as many have struggled in recent years to collect the fines handed out by magistrates and judges. The figures were released under the Freedom of Information Act."


Executive told: release vital Whitehall letters - Sunday Herald
"The Scottish Executive has been ordered to release its correspondence with the [UK] government on its decision to back free personal care for the elderly, following a two-year battle by the Sunday Herald. Kevin Dunion, the Scottish information commissioner, has backed the publication of files that are likely to reveal Whitehall's attitude to the controversial policy. His ruling is set to confirm the government's hostility to one of the major spending initiatives introduced since the establishment of devolution...Dunion's ruling will finally shed light on the cross-border discussions on the policy. In his decision, Dunion said the "passage of time" between implementation of the policy and the initial request "diminished the sensitivity" of the information. On the publication of ministerial communications, Dunion said the public interest was "generally best served" by disclosure."

Response to nuclear accident exercise like 'Keystone Kops' - Sunday Herald
"Serious flaws have been exposed in Scotland's arrangements for responding to a nuclear accident, with a secret Scottish Executive memo obtained by the Sunday Herald revealing a series of problems during an emergency exercise at the Torness nuclear power station in 2003...After a prolonged investigation, the Executive was forced by the Scottish Information Commissioner, Kevin Dunion, to release an official post-mortem report of the exercise. The document, marked "restricted management", made a series of damning criticisms...A spokesman for the Executive said it was "galling" to be asked about an exercise four years ago. It was "invidious" to suggest that it was relevant to today's situation, he argued."

Children still not getting enough PE - The Scotsman
"Only one of Scotland's 32 local authorities is definitely hitting targets for the provision of physical education in schools, The Scotsman can reveal. East Renfrewshire is alone in offering all primary and secondary pupils at least two hours of PE a week. Schools must hit the target by the start of the 2007-8 academic year in August, but most councils say they are way off the mark. They blame a combination of factors for the failure, including a lack of teachers, facilities, space and money...In all, 23 of 32 councils responded to The Scotsman's FoI request. Two authorities said they did not hold the information, while two said the figures they currently had were out of date...Highland Council, where no secondary schools are meeting the target, also said they had not been provided with enough money to implement the policy, forcing them to take money from other budgets."

Stadium campaigners hit out at council response - Evening News
"Campaigners fighting to save Meadowbank Stadium from destruction have criticised the council's handling of Freedom of Information requests. Two campaigners who lodged FOI requests with the council have said they were not given the information they needed before consultation on the future of the stadium ended on March 30...Kevin Connor lodged a...request on March 2, asking for "all information relating to the proposed sale and re-use of the Meadowbank Stadium site and the proposed stadium development at Sighthill". He says the council took four weeks to respond, admitted having "a lot of information" but restricted their reply to a one-page explanation."

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