FOI Disclosure Stories February 2010

Regulator slammed over GCSE marking – Press Association 28/02/10
“GCSE science pupils may have missed out on top grades after the exam regulator made a late change to marking boundaries to avoid a row over grade inflation, it has emerged. Documents released under the Freedom of Information Act reveal that last summer Ofqual, the independent body set up by Schools Secretary Ed Balls, was given predictions of a big jump in science results. On August 10, just two days before the grades were finalised, Ofqual chief executive Isabel Nisbet wrote to exam board officials saying the increases would be ‘difficult for the regulators to justify and for all of us to defend’. It was agreed that the independent awarding bodies that set and mark papers should ‘change their grade boundaries in order to improve the national position’.” See also ‘Move the goalposts and nobody can score’ The Sunday Times 28/2/10

BT ‘responsible for own £8.8bn pensions gap’ – FT 28/2/10
“BT’s £8.8bn pension deficit is almost entirely of its own making because it failed to make adequate contributions and took big risks with its investment strategy, according to documents submitted by its rivals to Ofcom, the regulator… Mr Ralfe also found, through a freedom of information filing, that at privatisation in 1984, BT already had a pension shortfall of £626m. BT did not take steps to close the gap, he said. Had it done so by investing funds in risk-free, index-linked gilts it would have £4.5bn more in its pension fund than it does. The research suggests BT’s pension scheme, which was conservatively invested at the time of privatisation, with a quarter of assets in bonds, took more risk over time.”

More than 17,000 episodes of troops going Awol since 2003 – Independent 20/2/10
“British soldiers have gone on the run from their posts on more than 17,000 occasions since the start of the Iraq war, The Independent can reveal. As resources for the armed forces remain stretched to cope with Britain’s commitments in Afghanistan, official figures from the Ministry of Defence (MoD) show that there were more than 2,000 cases of soldiers going absent without leave (awol) last year, with 17,470 incidents recorded since the Iraq invasion in 2003. The internal Government statistics, released to The Independent under the Freedom of Information Act, show that 375 soldiers remained at large at the end of last year, although MoD sources insisted that the figure has since fallen.”

University buildings ‘unfit for purpose’, database reveals – Building Design 16/02/10
“University buildings across the country were condemned as “unfit for purpose” or “at serious risk of major failure” in a secret database obtained by the Guardian newspaper. The database was compiled two years ago by the Higher Education Funding Council for England to allow universities to compare the quality of their estates with their rivals. The Guardian, which revealed its findings today, spent two years fighting for access to the report using Freedom of Information legislation.” See also ‘Cracks show at universities’ The Guardian 16/2/10

Trusts ‘failing over safety alerts’ – Loughborough 16/02/10
“Hundreds of health trusts have failed to take action on patient safety alerts issued to tackle problems which cause injury or death, a report has said. The study by Action Against Medical Accidents (AvMA) found that 300 trusts in England, around three quarters of the total, had not complied with at least one patient safety alert although the deadline had passed. It obtained the data, which covers 53 patient safety alerts issued between 2004 and 2009, from the Department of Health via a Freedom of Information request in December. The alerts are issued by the National Patient Safety Agency (NPSA) and require NHS trusts to take action on certain problems. They included one on injectable medicines which was issued after 25 deaths and 28 cases of serious harm were reported between January 2005 and June 2006.”

Primary Care Trusts Cut Funding For GP Out-Of-Hours Services – Medical News Today 11/02/10
“Primary care trusts are cutting investment in out-of-hours services by driving down contract payments, in a move that has raised concerns over its impact on the quality of care. Almost two-thirds of those PCTs able to provide details on contract retendering said they were reducing the amount they pay to out-of-hours providers, a Pulse investigation reveals. The GP committee of the BMA said the contract data, released to Pulse under the Freedom of Information Act, demonstrated the pressing need for a ‘reprioritisation’ of investment in out-of-hours care.”

Heathrow airport expansion e-mails investigated – BBC 7/2/10
“The Department for Transport (DfT) is facing an “intensive investigation” over claims e-mails about the expansion of Heathrow Airport were deleted. The exchanges with airport operator BAA were requested by a Conservative MP under the Freedom Of Information Act, who said she then spotted gaps. The Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) confirmed it would examine the 2007 e-mails about the third runway.”

Complaints of prison racism rise among staff and inmates – The Guardian 07/02/10
“Prison officers are more than twice as likely to be reported for racism than prisoners, according to new government figures showing alleged racist incidents across the prison estate have risen by a quarter. Ministry of Justice complaints data reveals a steady rise in alleged racist incidents at the 139 prisons in England and Wales. The figures, released under the Freedom of Information Act, are likely to add to concern over extremism in prisons. They come as prison staff express concern over growing sympathy for the British National party among colleagues. The figures show there have been 46,000 complaints by staff and prisoners that were categorised as racist since 2006. By 2008 there were 14,191 complaints about alleged racism in prisons, a 25% increase on 2006, when there were 11,389.”

Prince Charles’ aide accused of new bid to wreck plans for Chelsea barracks – Daily Mail 6/2/10
“The Prince of Wales was facing fresh accusations last night of sabotaging the controversial £1billion redevelopment of Chelsea Barracks. It was revealed that his most senior aide took part in a key discussion with the owners of the site  –  members of the Qatari royal family  –  and councillors from the Westminster planning authority. Just days later an ultra-modern plan for the site, designed by leading architect Lord Rogers, was scrapped…Last night Clarence House denied that Sir Michael voiced any opinions at the meeting. It insisted he rang off when he realised the nature of the meetingand that it was ‘not appropriate’ for him to be involved.”

Disabled students wait for specialist equipment grants – BBC 5/2/10
“Almost 12,500 students in England are still waiting for grants to pay for specialist equipment, figures from the Student Loans Company show. The statistics reveal two thirds of students with a disability or special needs are still waiting for money. The figures were obtained by the Conservatives following a Freedom of Information request…Of the 19,006 eligible DSA applications, only 6,507 have been fully processed and approved by the SLC. This means that, almost four months after term started, only 34% of eligible applications have been processed.”

MPs book House banqueting rooms for lobbyists to entertain clients – The Times 5/2/10
“Parliament’s exclusive banqueting facilities have been made available by MPs to outside bodies with which they have financial links. MPs from all parties booked dining rooms on behalf of organisations from which they received payments in recent years, information released yesterday shows. The list of bodies using the facilities, which are available only if booked by Members, also reveals the extent to which lobbyists use the Commons to entertain clients.”

British government ordered to reveal Iraq war legal advice – Belfast telegraph 02/02/10
“The British government’s most senior legal advisers broke the law by refusing to tell The Independent who was given crucial advice about the treatment of prisoners during the war in Iraq, the Freedom of Information watchdog has ruled.”

Reveal Ashcroft’s status, officials told – Independent 1/2/10
“Cabinet officials have been told they must end the secrecy surrounding a promise made a decade ago when Michael Ashcroft, the billionaire vice-chairman of the Conservative Party, was awarded a life peerage. As a condition for taking his place in the House of Lords, Mr Ashcroft promised to end his tax-exile status and become a UK resident, but in the intervening 10 years, he has refused to say whether he has kept that undertaking…But the Information Commissioner, Christopher Graham, has now ordered the Cabinet Office to release the information it holds about the private exchanges that took place before Lord Ashcroft was made a peer.”


Shame of no-show Welsh ambulance patients – Daily Post 26/02/10
“Thousands of patients weren’t home when ambulances or taxis turned up to take them to hospital appointments. The Welsh Ambulance Service NHS Trust revealed that on average in Wales 2,870 patients a month aren’t home or have made alternative arrangements to get to hospital when ambulances turn up. The staggering figure was released by the ambulance trust after a Daily Post Freedom of Information request, following a string of complaints about ambulances or taxis being late or failing to turn up. At present the ambulance trust’s Patient Care Services doesn’t have a computerised booking and planning system and can’t say how many patients missed appointments because of late ambulances.”

Ten wasted years: Revealed…scathing report on the Sugden Mill fiasco – Halifax Courier 17/2/10
“Council officials have wasted ten years on a stalled multi-million town-centre scheme, according to an explosive new report. Brighouse could be enjoying new shops and a swimming pool if the Sugden Mill project had been handled better, says the internal council dossier. Details secured by the Courier under the Freedom of Information Act show the council squandered a decade on plans and planning inquiries – and was finally forced to admit defeat after an ill-prepared £3.7 million compulsory purchase order…The report blasts the council for failing to put any formal arrangements in place to manage the project and said there was no evidence that legal or financial advice was sought.”

Sex offenders in the Thames Valley reported missing – BBC 15/02/10
“Six sex offenders, including four paedophiles, have been missing from the Thames Valley for up to eight years, figures obtained by BBC News reveal. Three are thought to be abroad, the figures released under freedom of information laws show. All of those missing pose a low risk of reoffending, a Thames Valley Police spokeswoman said. She said the force could never guarantee offenders would not re-offend while in the community.”

Coventry Refugee Centre fears over surge in child asylum seekers – Coventry Telegraph 09/02/10
“The number of lone children seeking asylum in the West Midlands has rocketed by 700 per cent in six years. In 2002 there were 42 children receiving care from councils in the region, but that figure had risen to 306 by 2008. The figures were revealed through a Freedom of Information request amid claims that local authority budgets were under strain to look after the children who had fled to the UK from countries such as Iraq and Afghanistan.”

Cops swell DNA database by 56k in three years – Daily Gazette 01/02/10
“Essex Police has taken DNA samples from more than 56,000 people in three years, newly released figures show. The force collected DNA from 17,592 last year, down from 18,432 in 2008 and the 20,015 samples taken in 2007. The figures only emerged after new Chief Constable Jim Barker-McCardle overturned a decision to block a Freedom of Information Act request. Essex Police was one of three forces in England and Wales that refused to answer the request, leading to Mr Barker-McCardle apologising last month. He said that while staff had been right to refuse the request because of the number of hours it would take to respond, the sensitivity of the subject meant he would like the information to be released.”


Salmond’s secret talks on Scottish Water sell-off – The Herald 28/02/10
“First Minister Alex Salmond and finance secretary John Swinney have held secret meetings about the possible sale of Scottish Water with the Australian company which owns Thames Water. An inquiry using Freedom of Information laws has disclosed that Mr Salmond and Mr Swinney held at least two meetings with the Australian banking group Macquarie dating back as far as 2008. The meetings cast further doubt on the SNP government’s insistence that the sell-off of Scottish Water is not on the agenda. The SNP has recently been embroiled in controversy over the future of Scottish Water. The Sunday Herald has reported that the Scottish Futures Trust is looking at alternative models for future ownership of Scottish Water and is considering whether it should be sold off. Although the SNP has insisted that privatisation is not an option, it is now clear that two of the country’s most senior ministers were exploring a change in ownership in parallel to the review.”

Salmond accused of trying to rig independence referendum – The Times 22/02/10
“The Scottish government was accused today of trying to rig an independence referendum after it emerged that the Electoral Commission raised concerns about the planned running of the plebiscite.(…) E-mails between the government and the commission obtained by the BBC under freedom of information law reveal the commission’s concerns over the wording of the proposed question to be put to the electorate and fears that the timescale was too short. The commission also expressed concern over the proposed new body to oversee the vote: “There seems little regard to the remit and role of what the Scottish Referendum Commission would actually do,” it stated.”

Natural heritage body suffers crisis of confidence – The Herald 21/2/10
“The Government agency tasked with protecting Scotland’s precious wildlife and landscapes is in deep trouble, according to internal documents obtained by the Sunday Herald. Scottish Natural Heritage (SNH) has suffered a severe and escalating crisis of confidence and has lost the support of its staff, the papers show. There is growing concern that nature conservation is slipping down the agenda of senior managers and Scottish ministers. The latest survey of SNH’s 900 staff reveals that only a third of them have confidence in the organisation’s future, or in its top management. And only a little more than half believe their employer deserves their loyalty…The results of the survey, conducted in 2008, were released by SNH last week under freedom of information legislation.”

SPT chief executive and vice chair resign – BBC 18/2/10
“Scotland’s largest transport authority has been hit by a third resignation amid an ongoing row over expenses. South Lanarkshire Labour councillor Davie McLachlan stepped down as vice chair of Strathclyde Partnership for Transport (SPT) on Thursday. He follows Ron Culley who resigned earlier as chief executive, and Glasgow Labour councillor Alistair Watson who stepped down as chairman on Monday. Financial watchdog Audit Scotland is to investigate expense claims at SPT. The row which led to the resignations flared after expense claims from SPT officials were reported following a Freedom of Information request.”

Council’s ‘face £300million in cuts’ – STV News 10/2/10
“Councils are facing cuts of £300million next year, according to Labour. Finance Secretary John Swinney will set out the £11.8billion split on Wednesday that Scotland’s 32 councils will each get as part of next year’s Budget. But as public spending tightens, Labour say responses to a Freedom of Information request reveals cuts of almost £300million across councils in 2010/11…Labour’s figures indicate that cuts are planned in the number of teachers, classroom assistants, janitors, workshop technicians and cleaning staff. Library opening hours, roads maintenance, resurfacing and gritting budgets are also in line to be reduced. South Ayrshire Council is looking at “reducing the workforce” to help find savings of £7million, while Highland has set a savings target of £11.49million in education and £5.01million in social work. But the claims were branded “factually incorrect and grossly hypocritical” by a spokesman for Mr Swinney.”


Poland accused over rendition – FT 23/2/10
Poland was involved in the CIA’s rendition programme in which terrorism suspects were transported, according to flight records obtained by human rights groups and made public yesterday. Records obtained from Polish air traffic control under a freedom of information request by the Helsinki Foundation for Human Rights in collaboration with the Open Society Justice Initiative indicate that at least six US flights landed at Szymany airfield, which is close to the Kiejkuty military base, suspected of being the location of a CIA detention site where prisoners were held in secret.Warsaw has for years denied involvement in the US programme.

More than 65,000 US flights should have been grounded newspaper study finds – The Times 3/2/10
“More than 65,000 flights have taken off from US airports in the past six years when they should have been grounded because of incomplete or improper maintenance, according to an investigation that sheds new light on hundreds of deaths including that of a mechanic “ingested” by a jet engine… The Air Transport Association, which represents the largest American airlines, claimed that its members had not suffered a single fatal accident because of shoddy maintenance since January 1, 2001. However, the newspaper’s analysis of National Transportation Safety Board data obtained through the Freedom of Information Act found that maintenance was a “cause, factor or finding” in 19 accidents since that date.”

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