FOI Media Update – 15th to 31st January 2013

Freedom of information laws ‘should be extended to private companies’ – STV – 31.01.13

Freedom of information laws should be extended to private companies contracted to provide public services, the Scottish Information Commissioner has said. Such a move will ensure accountability and transparency where large sums of tax-payers’ money are involved, Rosemary Agnew said.

Placing council services at arms length has weakened Scotland’s freedom of information – The Guardian – 30.01.13

The growing use of arms-length management companies and outsourcing agreements by Scotland’s local authorities means that fewer and fewer public services are subject to the Freedom of Information (Scotland) Act (FoISA). This loss of rights has been compounded by sustained inaction by successive ministers to fix the problem by extending the Act’s coverage, which culminated this month in the Scottish Government’s rejection of amendments that would have ensured FoISA returned to the standard intended when passed in 2002.

Ministers consider clampdown on ‘industrial users’ of Freedom of Information – BBC – 24.01.13

The government is considering how to curb repetitive and overly expensive Freedom of Information requests, justice minister Helen Grant has said. She claimed ‘disproportionate burdens’ were being imposed by ‘industrial users’. In a debate in the House of Commons secondary debating chamber Ms Grant said, “Despite the many benefits that the act has brought, we cannot ignore concerns raised about the burdens that it imposes upon public authorities.” But Plaid Cymru MP Elfyn Llwyd said she might be “over-stressing” her case.

Government to make it easier for officials to block FOI requests – The Telegraph – 24.01.13

Ministers want to make it easier for officials to refuse to answer requests from members of the public submitted under the Freedom of Information Act. Justice minister Helen Grant said the Government was looking at stopping “industrial users” who submitted multiple applications. She disclosed that the Government was looking at cutting the amount of time public bodies spend considering applications, which campaigners say will mean that more requests are turned down. The proposed changes have the potential severely to restrict the work of journalists who investigate Government and other public bodies.

Cherie Blair avoids sanctions over £1.3m mews tenant – The Telegraph – 24.01.13

Cherie Blair and her son Euan have escaped court action despite telling an official inquiry they breached planning regulations in respect of a mews house they own jointly in central London. The admission, made on their behalf by an architect, is revealed in documents obtained under the Freedom of Information Act.

Male prison assaults ‘rise by a third’ in London – BBC – 24.01.13

The number of reported assaults in London’s male prisons has risen by a third over the last four years. A freedom of information request to the Ministry of Justice (MoJ) revealed there were 1,950 reported assaults in eight male prisons in 2011, up from 1,463 in 2007. A penal reform group claims a reduction of prison officers is to blame. An MoJ spokesman said: “The rise in the number of assaults in London prisons is mainly due to an increase in the number of prisoners in London.” But the figures show London’s male prison population grew by just 6% in the time the assaults rose by 33%.

£140,000 cost of using sheep to mow grass in Brighton and Hove – The Argus – 23.01.13

A freedom of information request to Brighton and Hove City Council has revealed that the programme of using sheep for keeping ancient downland and chalkland trimmed has cost more than £140,000 over the last two years. The council had been using grazing animals as a more environmentally friendly way of keeping downland trimmed since 2004. Campaigners have raised concerns about the need to enclose the sheep which is restricting access to historic open spaces with fences and gates.

Number of BBC chiefs earning £100,000 or more rises despite pledge to cut salaries – The Telegraph – 23.01.13

A freedom of information request shows that the BBC now pay 360 staff £100,000 or more. Only 310 employees were in the top tier salary bracket in January 2011. The rise comes despite Lord Patten, chairman of the BBC Trust, having told the Telegraph in July that he would cut the number of senior managers from around 530 to 200 by 2015, to put an end to the “toxic” issue of executive pay.

Ricky Tomlinson calls on government to lift ‘veil of secrecy’ on Shrewsbury 24 – The Guardian – 20.01.13

Building workers imprisoned in one of the most controversial cases involving trade unionists have been told that documents relating to the case will remain secret for another 10 years. The actor Ricky Tomlinson, who was one of the workers, is calling for the government to lift the “veil of secrecy” over the case and release all the relevant information. In a letter to campaigners Chris Grayling, the justice secretary, said that documents were being withheld under section 23 of the Freedom of Information Act, which relates to safeguarding national security. Mr Tomlinson said his co-workers were convinced that the Tory government of the time had been behind the prosecutions.

Hospitals took three years to do safety checks on NHS doctors and nurses – Mirror – 19.01.13

Doctors and nurses worked in the NHS without proper criminal record checks for as long as three years. Details of the CRB blunder at the Barts Health NHS Trust have emerged in a Freedom of Information report obtained by the Health Service Journal. It shows managers had been warned in October 2009 that procedures used to check the background of staff were inadequate.

Isles of Scilly finance director claimed ‘extreme expenses’ – BBC – 18.01.13

A senior council officer has defended claiming £18,000 in expenses in the year to April 2012, after the figure was revealed following a Freedom of Information request. The council’s finance director admits the amount sounds ‘extreme’ but says that all claims are legal.

County rapped for keeping Hatfield incinerator emissions details secret – The Herts Advertiser – 17.01.13

The Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) has rebuked Hertfordshire County Council for withholding important information about emissions from an incinerator. In a recent ruling, made in response to request from campaigners under the Freedom of Information Act, the ICO has ordered the council to disclose information. The Council claimed that the information is commercially sensitive and would breach intellectual property rights if released to the public. The local authority has been given until mid-February to comply.

Freedom of Information laws widened by MSPs – Herald Scotland – 17.01.13

People will be given greater access to decisions taken by local authority arm’s-length bodies providing cultural and leisure facilities after ministers agreed to extend Freedom of Information laws. Scotland’s Deputy First Minister said there would also be a consultation on widening the legislation to cover other arm’s-length external organisations established by councils to deliver services on their behalf. The Campaign for Freedom of Information in Scotland welcomed widening the ambit of the legislation but has called for access to be greatly increased, to apply, for example, to companies working on public sector contracts.

London ambulance handover waiting times at A&E ‘rising’ – BBC – 16.01.13

The number of ambulances waiting more than 30 minutes from arriving at hospital to handing over patients has gone up about 66% in the last year, according to figures obtained by Labour from a Freedom of Information request.

Ministers accused of exploiting royal veto to block embarrassing legislation – The Guardian – 15.01.13

Government ministers have exploited the royal family’s secretive power to veto new laws as a way to quell politically embarrassing backbench rebellions, a former MP has claimed. Tam Dalyell, the sponsor of a 1999 parliamentary bill that aimed to give MPs a vote on military action against Saddam Hussein, said he is “incandescent and angry” that it was blocked by the Queen under apparent influence from Tony Blair’s government. It also emerged that Harold Wilson used the Queen’s power to kill off politically embarrassing bills about Zimbabwe and peerages. Detail about the extent of the Queen and Prince Charles’ power to consent to or block new laws are emerging as a result of a freedom of information campaign by a legal scholar.

Britain facilitating mining firms’ talks with repressive Eritrean regime – The Guardian – 15.01.13

The Government has been facilitating talks between a range of mining and investment companies and the Eritrean government, whose human rights record is castigated in a Human Rights Watch report that says companies rushing to exploit Eritrea’s rich resources risk involvement with widespread exploitation of forced labour by the regime. Details of those who attended a meeting organised by the Foreign Office during a visit by officials from Eritrea were released under the Freedom of Information Act.

NHS trust failed to stop dangerous breast cancer operations – The Guardian – 15.01.13

An NHS Trust was warned in an internal report about the dangers of a controversial breast cancer procedure almost four years before it banned a “rogue” surgeon from continuing to use it. The confidential report obtained under the Freedom of Information Act reveals that senior management at the Heart of England NHS trust were alerted to a technique being used by its staff which could increase the risk of breast cancer returning.

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