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FOI Disclosure Stories April 2010

Universities ‘pressured students to inflate league table’ – The Guardian 27/4/10
“Eight British universities have been accused of putting undue pressure on students in an attempt to boost their position in crucial national league tables. Documents released under freedom of information show the universities were reported to the higher education funding body in the last two years over allegations they tried to persuade students to give their institutions high scores in the National Student Survey…The documents obtained by the Guardian show Hefce received complaints about each institution and asked seven universities to carry out an internal investigation. The funding body investigated Anglia Ruskin but decided there was not enough evidence to request an internal inquiry. Hefce excluded the results from the psychology department at Kingston from the 2008 survey but in every other case it accepted the universities’ findings and no further action was taken.”

Shell drafted letter Tony Blair sent to Gaddafi while Prime Minister – The Times 27/04/10
“Tony Blair lobbied Colonel Muammar Gaddafi on behalf of Shell in a letter written for him in draft form by the oil company, documents obtained by The Times reveal. The correspondence, written while Mr Blair was Prime Minister, bears a striking resemblance to a briefing note by Royal Dutch Shell weeks earlier promoting a $500 million (£325 million) deal it was trying to clinch in Libya. While it is common for government ministers to champion British interests abroad, Shell’s draft reveals an unusual assurance in its ability to dictate Mr Blair’s conversation with the Libyan leader. It also raises questions about the motives behind Britain’s improved relations with Libya and the subsequent release of Abdul Baset Ali al-Megrahi, the Lockerbie bomber.”

Two women every day ‘being turned away from overstretched maternity units’ – The Telegraph 22/04/10
“Almost 750 heavily pregnant women were forced to travel to other units, up to 100 miles away, to give birth last year. Almost half of the women who were sent to other units were in Greater Manchester, where four maternity units are facing cuts, the figures show. The figures have been uncovered by the Conservatives using the Freedom of Information Act. They also show that many maternity units had been forced to close to new patients more than 10 times in 2009.”

Fines double for illegal workers – The HR Director 21/04/10
“Fines have almost doubled from £11.2m to £22.1m in a year. UK Border Agency Issue 2,210 civil penalties in 2009 up from 1,164 in 2008. Recruiters and employers need to carry out more thorough checks of job candidates as the number of fines for employing illegal workers doubled in 2009, according to data obtained under the Freedom of Information Act by giant precision, the web based back office solutions provider to the recruitment industry…The Government introduced a new system in March 2008 to try and reduce the number of illegal workers in the UK. This new system gave the UK Border Agency the power to issue civil penalties of £10,000 to employers for every illegal worker.”




NHS hospital sold cancer drugs ‘now in short supply’ – Daily Telegraph 15/4/10
“The Royal Surrey County Hospital Foundation Trust was criticised in February for selling more than £4 million of drugs abroad. It confirmed it had made £300,000 profit from the trade during the previous year. A request under the Freedom of Information Act has now uncovered the drugs which the trust sold and when it ceased trading in each. Of 33 products sold by the trust, 13 were cancer drugs and four were for HIV, the Health Service Journal has found. Four of these drugs were listed in November as being in short supply, including Glivec, used for leukaemia patients. The Trust said it ceased trading in Glivec in October and did not contribute to the shortages…The practice of buying drugs in Britain at a lower price, due to Government deals and the weak pound, and then selling them in Europe for profit is not technically illegal but has been criticised by the Department of Health and ministers have said it is ‘wholly unacceptable’.”

Millions wasted on treating mentally ill away from their communities – The Guardian 14/4/10
“George (not his real name) was one of anything up to 10,000 people with mental ill-health who are subject to “out of area treatments” (Oats). It is often assumed that since the closure of long-stay mental hospitals, users of mental health services are all treated in their own communities. This is emphatically not so. In a rising trend that has evaded policy-makers’ radar, NHS primary care trusts (PCTs) and local authorities in England are spending an estimated £330m a year on placements elsewhere…Some placements are justified on clinical grounds and are the right choice for the individual. Many, however, are not. And new research suggests that substantial sums – perhaps as much as £100m – could be saved by reviewing Oats and returning service users to their home areas.”
Novartis and Roche threaten to quit UK. The Guardian 11/04/10
“The pharmaceutical firms Novartis and Roche have threatened to pull out of Britain and relocate thousands of jobs abroad, in an ongoing row over pricing for the NHS and rules surrounding safety trials. The Swiss drug companies made their threats known in personal meetings with a government minister, according to Whitehall documents seen by the Guardian… The net effect, according to the minutes of the meeting obtained by the Guardian under the Freedom of Information Act, is “a price squeeze on Roche products which Mr Melville called a major issue because UK drug prices act as reference prices for many developed countries including most of the EU. He said it may even make sense to pull out of the UK, losing 3% of business, so as to safeguard pricing levels at the remaining 97% of sales sources.”

Criminals evade efforts to seize millions of pounds of assets – The Times 09/04/10
“Efforts to seize millions of pounds from fraudsters and tax evaders are failing because criminals are managing to hide their gains from the authorities. Only £30 million of £174 million ordered to be repaid in England and Wales since 2005 has been recovered so far. Figures released yesterday show that seven years after David Blunkett, the former Home Secretary, promised to go after the “homes, yachts, mansions and luxury cars” of crime barons, criminals are holding on to their assets. The returns call into question a cornerstone of efforts to control organised crime. Dozens of specialist staff were recruited by the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) to lead the effort.”

Taxpayers’ money given to corrupt charities – The Independent 08/04/10
“The Government department in charge of Britain’s £5.6bn aid budget has been accused of “unjustifiable secrecy” because it is refusing to disclose the names of charities and developing countries found to have fraudulently obtained money donated on behalf of UK taxpayers. Figures obtained by The Independent under the Freedom of Information Act show that the Department for International Development has lost nearly £720,000 over the past five years as a result of “fraud, corruption and abuse” by governments in the developing world or NGOs using British funds. But DfID has refused to release a detailed list of the projects and countries where fraud has been uncovered, saying that to do so would jeopardise the UK’s relationship with foreign governments and risk further abuse by detailing the nature of the offence. And it has also refused to give details of exactly how much money has been misused.”

Scientology ‘has branch in every English prison’ – Daily Telegraph 8/4/10
“Scientology has obtained a foothold in every prison in England and Wales, a spokesman for the religion claims, despite official figures which show only three prisoners acknowledge following the religion…An arm of the religion called Criminon says it now has followers in all of the 139 prisons in England and Wales and many of the 16 prisons in Scotland. However Ministry of Justice figures show just three inmates are scientologists, compared with 23,000 Church of England members, 14,000 Catholics, 366 Pagans and 340 Rastafarians. A spokesman for Criminon said that it had delivered its crime and drug rehabilitation programme to every single prison in the UK…In a Freedom of Information request, The Ministry of Justice admitted that Criminon tried to ‘recruit prisoners’ by writing to them in jail and encouraging them to sign up to the programme.”

Lib Dems reveal police pension costs up 50% in five years – Money Marketing 06/04/10
“The Liberal Democrats are calling for an independent commission on public sector pensions after research revealed that the cost of police pensions has soared by 50 per cent in the last five years. Figures uncovered by Freedom of Information requests to British police forces show the annual cost of pensions in 2008/09 was £2bn, compared to £1.3bn in 2004/05. The figures also reveal that the annual cost of police pensions is projected to rise by 14 per cent in the next three years.”

Half a million houses are lying empty, Guardian research shows – The Guardian 04/04/10
“Charities are demanding an urgent rethink of government housing policy after a Guardian investigation found that almost half a million homes are lying empty in the UK – enough to put a roof over the heads of a quarter of the families on council house waiting lists. The startling picture of neglect – we estimate that more than 450,000 properties have been empty for at least six months – at a time when there is an acute housing shortage was pieced together using information gathered from local councils under the Freedom of Information Act.”

FSA sees whistleblowing activity surge – Financial Times 03/04/10
“The number of whistleblowers passing on allegations to the authorities about malpractice in the financial markets has more than doubled since the start of the credit crunch. The Financial Services Authority said calls to its dedicated whistleblowing desk jumped from 835 in 2007 to 1,890 last year, in response to a Freedom of Information request submitted by the Financial Times.”

Gordon Brown accused of ‘cover-up’ over sale of Britain’s gold – The Telegraph 01/04/10
“The Prime Minister has been accused of a “cover-up” over the sale of Britain’s gold reserves after Treasury documents indicated that the Bank of England had refused to support the policy. An email released under freedom of information laws shows that in December 1998 senior officials at the Bank refused to back a Treasury move to sell almost 400 million tons of gold. Hundreds of pages of documents thought to detail the Bank’s concerns and advice to the chancellor have been withheld by the Treasury. Gordon Brown was chancellor at the time.”

Details of Royal finances revealed – Daily Telegraph 1/4/10
“Six members of the Royal Household were living rent-free in grace and favour accommodation at a time when the Queen was asking for more public money to repair Royal palaces, newly-released documents show. Details of the taxpayer-funded homes were released by Buckingham Palace under pressure from Parliament’s public accounts committee as it sought information about the Queen’s finances…Papers released under the Freedom of Information Act also show that several minor members of the Royal family, including the Duke and Duchess of Gloucester, paid nothing for their homes.”

Regional

Bed blocking scandal: Patient ‘living’ in hospital for nearly two years – Daily Post 24/04/10
“Beds were “blocked” by patients who no longer needed hospital treatment for 15,000 days across North Wales in the last year, a Daily Post investigation reveals. It’s thought to have wasted about £6m of taxpayers’ money, figures released under the Freedom of Information act show. The worst case saw one patient stuck in a Gwynedd hospital bed for 636 days – that’s a staggering one year and nine months. And that patient is still there – meaning other patients aren’t able to get in to use that bed. Vulnerable patients, who are often elderly and suffer from conditions like dementia, are stuck in hospitals because the right care packages are not available for them in the community.”

Building experts claim affordable homes rule is a failure- The Press 02/04/10
“Shocking new figures have revealed that only five affordable homes have been completed in five years under York’s controversial “50 per cent” policy. Three leading figures in the city’s building industry claimed today the statistic proved the policy had been a “catastrophic failure,” which had actually made it harder for people wanting an affordable home and had led to builders and developers going out of business. Developer John Reeves, architect Matthew Laverack and quantity surveyor Paul Cordock, who obtained the figure from City of York Council under a Freedom Of Information request, claimed the authority had previously “spun and misrepresented” figures to make it appear such homes were going to be produced in large numbers.”

Scotland

Hospitals hit by increase in ward closures and infections. STV 18/04/10
“New figures show a three-fold increase in infection rates and ward closures in Scots hospitals. The norovirus forced 318 ward closures in Scotland last year compared to 107 in 2006-7. Infections among patients and staff increased from 1,026 to 3,166 over the same period. The figures, released to Labour following a freedom of information request, showed the highest number of infections was in NHS Ayrshire and Arran with 843 cases, down from a peak of 1,130 in 2007-8. Labour health spokeswoman Jackie Baillie said: ‘I am deeply concerned at the huge surge in cases of the winter vomiting bug.’”

International

Once-hidden EU report reveals damage from biodiesel- Reuters 21/04/10
“Biofuels such as biodiesel from soy beans can create up to four times more climate-warming emissions than standard diesel or petrol, according to an EU document released under freedom of information laws. The European Union has set itself a goal of obtaining 10 percent of its road fuels from renewable sources, mostly biofuels, by the end of this decade, but it is now worrying about the unintended environmental impacts. Four major studies are under way. Chief among those fears is that biofuel production soaks up grain from global commodity markets, forcing up food prices and encouraging farmers to clear tropical forests in the quest for new land.”

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