Tuesday, January 22, 2008

Media update
Speaker's wife spent £50,000 on air travel - Telegraph 21/1/08
"Michael Martin, the House of Commons Speaker, was at the centre of a fresh controversy last night after it emerged his wife had spent £50,000 of public money on air travel. Figures obtained under the Freedom of Information Act show Mary Martin has run up a £25,000 bill on foreign travel, on top of spending £24,000 flying to and from the couple's Glasgow home. MPs' spouses are usually entitled to just 15 flights a year at taxpayers' expense. But last year, Mrs Martin is said to have spent an average £250 a week on flights to Glasgow, as part of a special arrangement understood to have been negotiated when her husband became Speaker in 2000."

Lottery grants of £1billion to local councils instead of good causes - Daily Mail 21/1/08
"Nearly £1billion of National Lottery money has been given to councils to pay for staffing, equipment and traffic calming schemes. The grants have come from the Big Lottery Fund, which was set up to help charities, arts, sport and heritage. Stockport Council - led by the Liberal Democrats - was given £250,000 for a project to improve the way staff "manage moods". Gosport Borough Council in Hampshire was handed £10,000 to buy a shredder. The figures were uncovered by the Tories through Parliamentary answers and Freedom of Information requests...The Tories said £883million had been misdirected in this way."

Watchdog pays to train staff in how to cope with MPs - Guardian 21/1/08
"The Financial Services Authority has spent tens of thousands of pounds on training its top officials in fielding questions from MPs in parliamentary hearings. The financial watchdog paid political consultants to fire questions at its senior executives in a mocked-up parliamentary committee before executives were grilled for real by MPs in Commons sessions...The payout emerged in documents, released under the Freedom of Information Act to the Guardian, which shed light on how more than 100 public sector bodies have hired political consultants over the past year. The payments by the FSA add up to £75,000 since 2003."

Private firms cash in on hospital parking scandal - Express 21/1/08
"Hospital parking fees could rocket as NHS trusts sell off their parking rights to private companies to balance the books. The trusts could receive one-off payments in exchange for a share of the fees and fines...The Freedom of Information Act shows that The Royal Cornwall Hospitals Trust – which last year made over £1million from its car park – sold a 15-year licence to run its car park at Treliske Hospital in Truro to Q-Park Limited of Leeds, for an undisclosed fee. The company now keeps all the income and fines from £40 penalty tickets. But last night the trust said all the money paid by Q-Park would be ploughed back into patient care. At the Shrewsbury and Telford Hospital NHS Trust the rights to the £650,000-a-year car parks have been sold off to CP Plus, in London, which pays the hospital a fixed annual fee for the parking income and a share of the fines."

Freedom of Information appeals backlog to 2010 - Press Gazette 18/1/08
"The existing backlog of Freedom of Information appeals to the Information Commissioner’s Office is now so long it will take until March 2010 to clear. This was one of the details revealed to Press Gazette in a freedom of information release which reveals the extent to which the Information Commissioner’s office is falling behind...According to figures obtained by Press Gazette under the Act, the office’s caseload – the number of complaints assigned a case officer but waiting to be answered – has increased from 1261 in April 2006 to 1346 in December 2007. The number of resolved complaints rose from an average of 138.8 a month in April to December 2006 to 173.75 in 2007, though the number of new complaints received also went up from 144.3 to 162.4 a month. In April 2007 the backlog was reduced by 49 – the ICO’s most effective month since it began keeping records. If it repeats this performance every month the current backlog would clear in March 2010."

NHS overspends on statins - BBC 17/1/08
"The National Institute for Clinical Excellence (Nice) is urging GPs to switch patients from the expensive, branded versions [of cholestorol-lowering statins] to the cheaper generics when it is medically appropriate. For example, a brand-name version of Atorvastatin costs £18.03 for a month's supply. A generic version of Simvastatin, which many doctors say will do the same job for the majority of patients, costs £1.39. Despite that, using the Freedom of Information Act, the Politics Show has found that many primary care trusts in England are still prescribing a high percentage of the more expensive statins - wasting as much as £70m a year."

DVLA's 5m driver details giveaway - The Register 17/1/08
"Christine Grahame, an SNP Member of the Scottish Parliament, accused the [Driver and Vehicle Licensing] agency of recklessly handing out driver and vehicle requests to private companies. Grahame used a Freedom of Information request to discover the DVLA has sold 5.3m driver records since 2002/2003 when it was first allowed to sell the data...Private firms with "reasonable cause" can buy individual records for £2.50 each. If you want more than who the keeper of a vehicle was at a specific time - like a copy of documents or extra information about the vehicle's keeper - the DVLA will charge you £5. Last year the DVLA sold 1.3m records to private companies - a 54 per cent increase in five years. Grahame made the FOI request because several of her constituents were wrongly sent fines from private parking companies demanding payment."

The final reckoning - Guardian 14/1/08
"Nine months ago, 30-year-old rising star Josie Rourke, whose 2006 production of King John played at the RSC to rave reviews, joined the Bush [theatre] as artistic director. Last month, she received a letter [from Arts Council England] telling her the theatre faced a 40% cut in funding. Rourke and her team submitted requests under the Freedom of Information Act to uncover the figures and rationale behind the letter. She received the figures last week - and found a huge error. Audience attendance at the Bush over the last year, which the theatre puts at around 40,000, had been grossly underestimated: the ACE's figure was 14,600. "I genuinely believe that the arts council is using evidence that contains factual errors," Rourke says. "We only found out because we asked to see the figures - but what if this is the case for other organisations facing cuts around the country?"


Huge rise in on-the-spot fines issued by Kent Police - Kent Messenger
"The number of criminal offences being dealt with by Kent Police with on-the-spot fines has risen five-fold in just three years, according to official figures. In 2006-2007, Kent Police issued 7,383 Penalty Notice Disorders (PNDs) for what are called “low level” offences such as being drunk and disorderly, shoplifting and damaging property, the equivalent of 20 offences a day. That is nearly 6,000 more than were issued in 2004-2005 and 1,390 more than 2005-2006. Kent police has also revealed that close to half the fines it handed out last year were registered as unpaid. Offenders are supposed to settle fines within 21 days although in a statement, the police emphasised that offenders who did not pay were pursued through the courts."

1000s wait as homes lie empty - Express and Star 21/1/08
"More than 200 council homes in Wolverhampton are sitting empty and ready for new tenants, while 7,303 people are told they have to wait, figures obtained under a Freedom of Information Act request by the Express & Star revealed today. The figures show 448 properties in the city have no-one living in them, with 218 suitable for someone to live in immediately. Many have been empty for so long they are boarded-up to prevent vandals attacking. Among the other 230, some are waiting for sales to go through under the right-to-buy process.
Others are awaiting demolition or need work done to make them habitable."

Police admit losing track of seven sex offenders - The Argus 21/1/08
"Police have admitted they have no idea of the whereabouts of seven sex offenders. Six of the those on the register are believed still to be in the UK but the seventh is thought to have fled abroad. The news, released by Sussex Police under the Freedom of Information Act, has alarmed support groups for people who have been victims of sexual abuse and attack...Sussex Police have 19 full-time officers who deal exclusively with monitoring violent criminals and sex offenders with a further three working part-time. Officers make unannounced homes visits to offenders in the very high risk category each month, high risk cases every three months, medium risk every six months and low risk once a year. The frequency of visits is determined by regular risk assessments of each individual case."

Transplant patient has new kidney removed after NHS computer blunder - thisislondon.co.uk 20/1/08
"A kidney transplant patient was forced to have the new organ removed after just a few hours – when it was discovered that the patient's blood type had been incorrectly recorded on a computer database. The mistake, believed to be the first of its kind in Britain, would have led to the organ being rejected – with possibly fatal consequences. The incident, which was only revealed in response to a Freedom of Information request, comes just days after Gordon Brown called for a system in which individuals are presumed to consent to the use of their organs for transplant unless they specifically stipulate otherwise. The error will intensify demands for fresh safeguards."

Radium thrown out as scrap in university blunder - Yorkshire Post 19/1/08
"A major alert was sparked last year when it was discovered that radioactive radium 226 had gone missing from a machine which had been dismantled by staff at York University's biology department. It was found four days later after being mistakenly sent to a scrapyard in York and then to a recycling plant in Sheffield. The results of an internal investigation have emerged which says staff who dismantled the machine failed to carry out a risk assessment and "did not recognise or realise the hazards". A report, published through the Freedom of Information Act, reveals that a lecturer who decommissioned the RackBeta Machine did not realise which part of the equipment contained radioactive material...A York University spokesman said an immediate and detailed investigation traced the missing "tiny" amount of radium 226 within four days and likely public exposure was minimal."

Stockport Primary Care Trust loses 4,000 patient records on memory stick - Computer Weekly 18/1/08
"The personal medical records of 4,000 NHS patients have been lost by Stockport Primary Care Trust, but health managers have chosen not to inform the individuals involved. The records were on a USB stick clipped round the neck of an NHS employee when they were lost. They contained the names, dates of birth and details of medical conditions of patients of Stockport Primary Care Trust, as well as their NHS and trust numbers and details of their GPs. The trust has since informed the Department of Health and GPs about the loss, but news only came to light publicly following a freedom of information request."

Ministers did hold victims' role talks - Belfast Telegraph 17/1/08
"An internal Stormont memo has revealed Ian Paisley and Martin McGuinness had high level talks about re-running the hunt for the Victims Commissioner two weeks before their office denied they were planning to do it. The memo, released under the Freedom of Information Act, shows the First Ministers met the Commissioner for Public Appointments about their proposal on September 11 last year. According to the minute of the meeting, Mr Paisley told Felicity Huston, the public jobs watchdog, that he and Mr McGuinness were looking at "the possibility of running a new, OCPA-regulated appointments process". But on September 26, their office denied to this newspaper that the post would be re-advertised. On October 8, the ministers then announced that they were re-advertising the post. The hunt for the permanent Victims Commissioner has now dragged on for almost a full year."

Files reveal why u-turn was taken over bypass - thisisnorthscotland.co.uk 15/1/08
"The controversial last-minute choice of route for the Aberdeen bypass was far costlier than one which would have ploughed through a special-needs community, according to documents released last night. Correspondence between officials and ministers in the former Scottish Executive reveals the fear of a political fallout stopped the route going through the Camphill community at Bieldside. The file, released under freedom of information legislation, shows that the then transport minister, Tavish Scott, was worried at the level of opposition to the Murtle option, which was considered the most likely of five routes to be chosen."

Council parking spaces cost taxpayer £700,000 in lost fees - thisisstaffordshire.co.uk 15/1/08
"Reserved parking spaces for more than 1,000 city council staff and councillors are costing Stoke-on-Trent taxpayers almost £700,000 a year in lost revenue. Figures released under the Freedom of Information Act show that the bill for the city council's parking allocation scheme came to £683,400 last year. That is more than £250,000 higher than the cost borne by Birmingham City Council, the largest authority in the West Midlands employing more than 44,000 staff."

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