Monday, January 21, 2013

Media Update - 1st to 14th January 2014

HMRC: taxman increasingly 'snooping' on taxpayers - The Telegraph - 14.01.13
Figures obtained under Freedom of Information show HMRC officials made almost 14,400 authorised views of "communications data" on taxpayers during tax evasion investigations in the past year. This equates to a rise of almost 25% on 2010 figures. It is not clear how many times the surveillance has led to a successful prosecution for tax evasion or whether those found to be innocent are told that they have been spied upon.

City sackings soar as FSA cracks down - The Independent - 14.01.13

Sackings and suspensions hit a five-year high in the City last year, as the financial crisis continued to take its toll on employment amid a clampdown on wrongdoing by the regulator.  Law firm Pinsent Masons sourced figures through a freedom of information request.

Sharp fall in young police officers - BBC - 13.01.13

The number of young police officers in England and Wales has fallen by nearly 50% in two years. Overall police numbers hit an nine-year low in 2012, due to tighter budget constraints slowing recruitment, but data obtained in a Freedom of Information request by the BBC shows how much of that fall has been among younger officers.

Information commissioner backtracks on naming salmon farms that kill seals after 'death threat' - Herald Scotland - 13.01.13

In a rare move, the Scottish Information Commissioner has reopened her investigation into the issue of forcing ministers to name salmon farms that shoot seals to stop them eating fish.  The Commissioner has now given ministers until the end of the month to provide hard evidence of the risks to property and people that are claimed to exist from animal welfare campaigners should the farms be named. She will then consider whether to enforce her decision, which originally demanded seal-shooting salmon farms be identified by 10th January.

Stirling university researcher claims safety regime policy is risky - BBC - 11.01.13

A Stirling university researcher has claimed government policy on safety is putting lives at risk in the work place. Prof Rory O'Neill used Freedom of Information requests and Health and Safety Executive reports to compile a list of sectors excluded from unannounced HSE inspections.

How to follow the public money in a privatised NHS - The Guardian - 09.01.13

Without basic financial transparency from public service contractors we can say goodbye to democratic accountability.

[Note: In this Comment piece Zoe Williams urges readers to request their MP's to sign an early day motion (EDM) calling for private companies with NHS contracts to be subject to the Freedom of Information Act.  The MP responsible for introducing the EDM, Grahame Morris (Labour) responds in The Guardian Letters 10.01.13 here.]

10,000 truancy convictions in a year - Daily Express - 08.01.13

Record numbers of parents are being convicted for allowing their children to play truant from school, new figures obtained from the Ministry of Justice under the Freedom of Information Act reveal.

Violent school pupils attack 900 London teachers a year - London Evening Standard - 07.01.13

Teachers in London have suffered more than 4,000 assaults from pupils over the past five years. The scale of violence is shown in figures obtained by the Evening Standard under the Freedom of Information Act.

Abuse and neglect complaints increase in Essex care homes - BBC - 07.01.13

Allegations of abuse of elderly people in Essex care homes have risen by more than 300 in a year, a BBC Freedom of Information request revealed. The allegations total 1,398 in 2011-12, up from 1,045 in 2010-11. The council said 299 allegations of abuse had been upheld in 2011/12 up from 149 in 2010/11.

20-year rule comes into force - Wired-gov - 04.01.13
As of 1st January 2013, the government has begun its move towards releasing records when they are 20 years old, instead of 30. During 2013 The National Archives will receive records from 1983 and 1984. Then, two further years worth of government records will be transferred each year until 2023 when the Archive will receive records from 2003.

Cuts fail to halt first-class travel for profligate public sector - Yorkshire Post - 05.01.13

Councils and NHS hospitals are spending thousands of pounds on first-class rail tickets for senior executives despite the biggest squeeze on public spending in living memory. Figures released under the Freedom of Information Act revealed at least five of Yorkshire's 22 councils and four of its NHS hospital trusts spent taxpayers' money on first-class rail fares during 2011/12, though most public bodies in the region said it was strictly against their guidelines to pay for their staff to travel first class.

£5,000 cost to 'design' controversial Fenland sign - Peterborough Telegraph - 04.01.13

Concern has been raised over the use of public funds after the Highways Agency spent £5,000 designing a road sign for a Fenland Village.

Revealed: Deaths during childbirth are on the rise - Herald Scotland - 04.01.13

More than 40 women have died as a result of childbirth in Scotland in the past decade and the number of fatalities appears to be rising. The figures, obtained by the Herald using Freedom of Information legislation, show the number of mothers killed by complications linked to pregnancy and delivery doubled in five years. NHS officials initially refused to reveal the figures and only released the information after an appeal was lodged.

Ex-University of Wales vice chancellor had £20,000 pay rise - BBC - 03.01.13

Plaid Cymru has criticised a £20,000 pay rise for the former vice chancellor of the University of Wales. The salary of professor Marc Clement rose from £121,082 in 2010-11 to £140,150 the following year. He was aloso paid a "discretionary honorarium" of £10,000 in 2010-11, a freedom of information request showed. Plaid described the decision as "baffling" as it came as the University faced controversy over links to partner colleges, leading to it being effectively wound up.

MoD compensation log illustrates human cost of Afghan war - The Guardian - 01.01.13

A list obtained under Freedom of Information Act shows compensation paid by the Ministry of Defence for civilian injuries and deaths alongside frequent crop damage. The cases paint a picture of the ongoing human cost of the conflict.

Sex offender at Southend Hospital was CRB checked - BBC - 01.01.13

A known sex offender got work at a hospital despite being criminal record bureau (CRB) checked. Responding to the BBC's FOI request, the hospital said the agency worker was hired to provide optician services and saw eight children between April and June.

Monday, January 14, 2013

Crunch week for FOI in Scotland as Parliament debates coverage

The Campaign for Freedom of Information in Scotland (CFoIS) has urged the Scottish Parliament to back a series of amendments to the Scottish Government's Freedom of Information (Amendment) (Scotland) Bill. This Bill is to have its Stage 3 debate in the Scottish Parliament on Wednesday 16 January and a series of amendments are proposed to ensure FOI rights extend to public services provided by private, voluntary and arms-length bodies.

The CFoIS wants the Scottish Government to heed the concerns expressed by the Finance Committee's Stage One report. The Campaign is taking part in a briefing meeting for MSPs on Tuesday 15 January, the day before the Parliamentary debate, and will be circulating a written briefing outlining the need to amend this bill to reinstate eroded rights to information. The meeting will be chaired by Paul Martin MSP, and addressed by Carole Ewart of the CFoIS.

Carole Ewart, Co-Convener of the CFoIS, said:
"A number of MSPs, including members of the Finance Committee, have submitted amendments to this Bill, as the Scottish Government appears unable or unwilling to accept our arguments in favour of protecting our information rights."

The major reason why the Bill should be strengthened is to retrieve peoples's information rights lost as increasing outsourcing of our public services removes services from coverage. Neither the Scottish Government nor previous Scottish Executive Administrations have ever used their powers to add named bodies and categories of bodies to the list of organisations covered.

Amending the Bill is also necessary to meet the Scottish Government's own FoI principles, 1 and 2: that "the public's right to know remains an essential part of an open, democratic government and responsive public services" and FoISA "will be adjusted where it is necessary and sensible to do so".

Carole Ewart said:
"At a time when Audit Scotland estimates over 130 arms-length bodies are involved in delivering public services, and when the Scottish Government is proposing bills like the Procurement, and Community Empowerment Bills that will bring more bodies into public service delivery, it is very concerning that they seem oblivious to the threats these pose to everyone's right to know about how our cash is spent."


The Briefing for MSPs will be held in Committee Room 1 from 1.15pm on Tuesday 15 January.

A copy of the briefing sent to MSPs in advance of the debate is available from the CFoIS website

There is an email message available on the UNISONScotland website, that allows Campaign supporters to lobby their MSPs.

Friday, January 11, 2013

FOI Media Update - December 14th to 31st 2012

A freedom of information request found that 850 staff have been given a total of £11 million to cover the costs of moving, as well as one-off payouts worth 10 per cent of their salary to encourage them to move north from London.

Employees from firms including British Gas, Shell and npower are being seconded to work at Department of Energy and Climate Change and, in most cases, are being paid by the government to do so. Documents released under the freedom of information rules reveal that almost two dozen employees from companies are working at the Department, and civil servants have travelled in the opposite direction to work for the companies.

Nearly 1,000 doctors and surgeons have criminal records including child porn and sexual assault offences. The figures have been revealed by the General Medical Council in response to a Freedom of Information request by the Daily Mirror.

Nearly 12,000 people over the past five years were wrongly labelled criminals due to inaccurate record checks, leading to £1.9m paid out in compensation. The figures, published by privacy and civil liberties campaign group Big Brother Watch after a freedom of information request, showed the most common errors involved information being disclosed by local police forces or the police national computer.

Statistics released by police forces under the Freedom of Information Act show that the phenomenon of social networking crime was comparatively minor in 2008 with 556 reports made to police . This year there were 4,908 reports in which Facebook and Twitter were a factor.

Mr Salmond had faced accusations of overseeing a "culture of secrecy" after claiming he holds no record of how many civil servants he has assigned to work on his blueprint for an independent Scotland.

The Liberal Democrats have hit out at the £500,000 a year cost to the NHS in Scotland for collecting and destroying unused prescriptions. The figures obtained by freedom of information cover the cost of medicines returned unused to pharmacies in 10 out of 14 health boards in 2011/12.

The public spending watchdog, The National Audit Office, is to investigate BBC severance packages after it emerged that almost 200 senior managers received pay-offs of more than £100,000 each in the past three years. Figures obtained under the Freedom of Information laws show that between 2010 and 2011 the cost of redundancy payments more than doubled to £58 million.

The number of teachers taking stress leave has increased by 10% over the past four years, with 15 local authorities seeing a 50% rise in stress-related absences, according to statistics released under the Freedom of Information Act.

A damning report by safety experts has revealed that staff at Britain's most important nuclear site did "not have the level of capability required to respond to nuclear emergencies effectively". In response to a freedom of information request, the Office for Nuclear Regulation said errors by senior fire officers in a preparedness exercise at Sellafield "could have led to delays in responding to the nuclear emergency and a prolonged release of radioactive material off-site".

Further secret lobbying written by Prince Charles letters could set government ministers against judiciary again if judges rule in favour of publication 'in public interest'. Cabinet ministers provoked an uproar earlier in the year when they overruled three judges and banned the disclosure of letters that could have cast doubt on the prince's neutrality. The judges had decided that the public had a right to see how the heir to the throne had been trying to sway government policy. Now the same judges are deciding whether a second set of letters sent by the prince should be published. If the judges decide that this second cache of letters should be published, the cabinet would then be faced with the prospect of having to veto their publication as well.

Figures obtained under Freedom of Information show that in the last three years police have used Tasers on at least 78 people to stop them from killing or otherwise hurting themselves. Mental health charities have criticised such use as being "completely inappropriate" actions on people "in great mental distress".

According to The Children's Society support for the 100,000 children who run away from home every year, many of them fleeing physical or sexual abuse, is extremely limited and in large parts of the country shows no signs of improving. The Society sent freedom of information requests to all 150 councils in England and the 43 regional police forces and found that two-thirds of the councils had no specific programme to help runaways, while a similar proportion was unable to provide emergency accommodation. Almost half of all police forces were unable to say how many children went missing in their area each year.

Tory MP Gavin Williamson has used the Freedom of Information Act to reveal the taxpayer funded authority in charge of West Midlands public transport spends almost £20,000 a year on lobbying politicians and promoting itself to government.

The Department for Education's difficulties with implementing the Freedom of Information Act have been re-emphasized in the most recent release of statistics on the performance of government departments. In the latest quarter it had the worst record out of all department in England for responding to FoI requests within the legal time limit. As a result the Department has been put under special monitoring by the Information Commissioner's Office.

In September the DfE abandoned the controversial legal case it had been fighting to try to establish that emails sent by ministers on personal accounts ere not covered by the FOI Act. The position was in defiance of the clear stance adopted by the Information Officer, who had already ruled that all emails sent on government business could fall under FOI, whether an official or private account was used.

Three other public authorities have also been targeted by the ICO for close monitoring due to their unsatisfactory handling of FOI applications.

Scotland's councils have spent nearly £150 million on credit cards including transactions for skateboards, the rights to screen the film Grease and thousands of pounds in unexplained cash withdrawals. Official figures were obtained by the Conservatives under the Freedom of Information Act.

A Freedom of Information Act request by the BBC found the lifting bridge linking Poole port and Hamworthy closed 38 times in its first six months. The bridge opened in April after being beset by delays and unexpected closures. Poole Borough Council says the town's Twin Sails Bridge is something to be proud of, despite its early problems.

The Government has published proposals in response to a committee of MP's  report on the working of the Freedom of Information Act.

Changes to the cost cap on requests could radically cut the proportion of requests under the FOI legislation that are answered. 

Other changes would allow officials to add into the cost their "thinking time" when deciding to give answers further limiting the information that would be released. This proposal is of particular concern to The Campaign for Freedom of Information. Its director, Maurice Frankel, said, "The longer an authority needs to think about a request, the greater the chance of it being able to refuse to answer on cost grounds".

Information released through FOI have formed the basis of some of the biggest stories in recent years, notably the revelations concerning MP's expenses, which were revealed in 2009.

NHS hospitals deal with private firms to buy and sell patient care and treatment services worth more than £500m.

Freedom of information requests to more than 100 NHS trusts revealed hospitals were spending millions of pounds buying beds in private hospitals, often to bring down long waiting lists.

In some cases the NHS draws a veil of secrecy over the state's relationships with the private sector. Some trusts simply refused to name which companies they were spending tax pounds with for patient care, claiming that to do so would "prejudice commercial interests".

Freedom of information proposals attacked - Financial Times - 18.12.12

Government plans to amend the Freedom of Information Act could make it hard for people to get answers to complex or contentious requests, the Campaign for Freedom of Information has said. The changes could see time-consuming information requests refused because authorities would be allowed to take account of the cost of considering applications and deleting exempt data, as well as the time it takes to find documents.

The government is also proposing to allow authorities to combine the cost of unrelated freedom of information requests from the same individual or organisation - making it more likely that requests could exceed cost limits.

£18million in benefits paid to prisoners has not been recovered - London Evening Standard - 16.12.12

More than £18 million in benefits wrongly paid to prisoners in the past four years has not been clawed back. The figures, revealed by a freedom of information request by the Mail on Sunday, show that between 2007 and 2011 overpayments as a result of "customers being in prison" were made worth £31.7 million but only £13.1 million was recovered - a shortfall of £18.6 million.

Lancashire PCC Clive Grunshaw faces expenses probe - BBC - 17.12.12

Lancashire's police and crime commissioner Clive Grunshaw is facing questions about his expenses while a councillor and police authority member following a freedom of information request from Conservative councillor.