Media update

A selection of FoI stories from the past week…

Official secrecy is back on the rise – The Sunday Times
“Now, despite Lord Falconer, the constitutional affairs secretary, hailing it last week as “the single most significant act of any government in improving transparency, accessibility and accountability”, he is about to introduce new regulations that critics believe will strangle a piece of legislation already in danger of being suffocated by bureaucracy.”

Uproar at council chief’s £286,000 payout – Times online
“A council is facing investigation over a £131,000 redundancy payment it made to its chief executive…The controversy over his payout comes a week after a survey highlighted the growing number of council officials on City-like salaries. The survey, which used information obtained under the Freedom of Information Act, showed that five council officials in Britain earned more than £200,000 last year, and that eleven earned more than the £186,429 paid to Tony Blair, the Prime Minister.”

Guardian News and Media urges Government to abandon plans to water down FoI – Press Gazette
“Guardian News and Media has submitted a strongly worded submission to The Government urging it not water down the Freedom of Information Act. The Guardian made its submission to the official consultation (which has now closed) on proposals to massively increase the number of FoI requests rejected on costs grounds – irrespective of the public interest…Last week Press Gazette handed a petition signed by 1,250 journalists to Number 10 Downing Street and the Department of Constitutional Affairs opposing the proposed FoI changes. The petition was signed by nearly every national newspaper editor and the vast majority of regional daily newspaper editors.”

‘Speed camera research was axed’ – Guardian
“The Government cancelled research into the effect speed cameras were having on accident rates and driver behaviour, a request under the Freedom of Information Act has revealed…The DfT said in its reply under the Act that its original research was replaced by research looking at the wider effects of cameras. But Safe Speed, which believes cameras are having no effect on casualty rates, said the original research was dropped because the DfT was “scared about the likely results”.”

What did NHS spend £11m on? – The Sun
“The NHS is wasting £11 million on a poll asking us to rate our GPs, a Sun probe has found…The waste of cash was exposed after The Sun obtained information about the cost of the poll through the Freedom of Information Act. The DoH announced the survey in November and started sending it out to patients in January. It claimed they would offer the chance to air common complaints, such as problems booking appointments.”

Dispersal policy ‘put asylum seekers at risk’ – Independent
“Asylum-seekers were put at risk by the Government’s much-criticised policy of dispersing them around the country, according to a Home Office report which the department refused to publish…Private research conducted for the Home Office nearly five years ago by academics from Oxford Brookes University laid bare the extent of problems with the policy. It followed the murder of a refugee in Sighthill, Glasgow, the stabbing of another in Hull, and reports of rising community tensions in several northern towns and cities. The research was never released by the Home Office, which finally published it yesterday under the Freedom of Information (FoI) Act.”

Challenging Ofsted works – Times Educational Supplement
“New figures show that nearly one in two appeals against inspectors’ reports succeeds. Schools unhappy with their inspection reports should take heart from previously unreleased figures that show that almost half of those who have complained have been vindicated. The statistics, obtained under the Freedom of Information Act, show that since the introduction of light-touch inspections, 49.4 per cent of school grievances have been either partially or fully upheld.”


Labour scraps class size promise – Western Mail
“Education Minister Jane Davidson scrapped a promise to reduce the size of primary school classes because she wasn’t convinced that pupils would benefit, it has been revealed…Ms Davidson stated that officials went on to estimate that if infant class sizes were to be reduced to a maximum of 25 pupils, there would be a cost for accommodation and staff in the first year of around £58m and £19m- £20m per year thereafter.”

552 anti-depressants prescribed in Sunderland every day – Sunderland Echo
“Medics are handing out 552 anti-depressant prescriptions EACH DAY in Sunderland, at an annual cost of £1.9million. Patients were given 201,692 prescriptions for antidepressant drugs last year – an increase of 15,000 within three years. Yet while antidepressant use has soared, the cost of the drugs has plummeted. In 2003/04, more than £2.6million was spent on 186,690 antidepressants.”

Willows return to the riverside – Oxford Mail
“Residents on Oxford’s Osney Island have welcomed new willow trees after the city council’s controversial felling last year. In November, residents were infuriated when 11 diseased willows along the river bank in East Street were chopped down for safety reasons. They said the trees should have been pollarded – heavily pruned back – instead, and used the Freedom of Information Act to obtain a council report showing six of the trees were considered to be in “reasonable health”.”

Surgery funding soars in Suffolk – The Evening Star
“Funding for Suffolk doctors’ practices rose by more than £11m in just one year, it can be revealed today…The money came from government coffers in the same year the controversial GP contracts system was brought in. In 03/04 practices in Suffolk were given £53,739,000 funding by the county’s primary care trusts as opposed to £64,976,000 in 04/05 – a rise of £11,2376,000.”

Drivers stung for using mobile phones – The Evening Star
“Rocketing numbers of Suffolk drivers are being caught using mobile phones in a sustained purge by police, it emerged today…A total of 2,696 drivers received £30 fixed penalties – amounting to £80,880 – between February last year and the end of January this year. The statistics, which were obtained through a Freedom of Information request by The Evening Star, show a 52.4 per cent rise compared to the figures for the same period during the previous 12 months.”

800 cases of long-term sickness at RSH – Shrewsbury Chronicle
“Staff at the Royal Shrewsbury Hospital have clocked up more than 800 cases of long-term sickness absence in the last two years – with union officials claiming morale is at its lowest ever…Each case relates to a period of absence of 28 days or more and the data shows the true extent of the staffing crisis at the hospital.”


Anti-bigotry report ‘suppressed’ – BBC News
“The Scottish Executive has been accused of deliberately suppressing a report about sectarianism in football. The report details claims from fans that Strathclyde Police officers are making the problem of sectarianism worse rather than helping solve it. It was carried out for the executive by the director of football studies at Glasgow University, Bert Moorhouse. In a statement, the executive denied that it “in any way tried to delay or suppress publication of this report””.

Sepa to cut number of UK flights by half – Sunday Herald
“The Scottish Environmental Protection Agency (SEPA) has launched a major overhaul of its travel policies with the aim of cutting flights within mainland Britain by half within a year…An insight into the thinking behind the change comes in the email from [chief executive] Gemmell to his colleagues within Sepa, released in response to a request under freedom of information legislation. “I am concerned we are not walking the talk,” Gemmell wrote in November.”

Big cat panic as police reveal 185 sightings – Scotsman
“Data obtained under the Freedom of Information Act reveals almost 200 sightings were reported by members of the public to Scottish police forces between 2000 and 2006. Police in Grampian and Fife recorded the highest number of sightings, 55 and 42 respectively. Other hotspots include Lothian, with 30 sightings, and Strathclyde, with 27. The documents reveal that the police are using extensive resources to investigate claims of big cat sightings. Helicopters have been deployed on four occasions by Strathclyde Police to patrol areas following an alleged sighting.”

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