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11 things we wouldn’t have been able to tell you without the Freedom of Information Act

PUBLISHED: 12:01 22 July 2015 | UPDATED: 12:08 22 July 2015

A dossier of confidential council papers detailing the issues surrounding the deficit in the adult educaton budget released to the EDP under the Freedom of Information Act.

A dossier of confidential council papers detailing the issues surrounding the deficit in the adult educaton budget released to the EDP under the Freedom of Information Act.

ARCHANT NORFOLK PHOTOGRAPHIC © 2005

Freedom of Information laws are to be reviewed to make it harder for members of the public and the press to obtain details about the inner workings of government.

Paramedics went to the scene. Paramedics went to the scene.

A review has been set up into the way Freedom of Information (FOI) laws work, amid fears it is leading to officials being “less candid” with government ministers because their correspondence could be published.

The law, which was brought in during the last Labour government in 2000, has exposed the abuse of MPs’ expenses, as well as local failings such as the extent of long ambulance response times. It is regularly used by the EDP and Evening News to source stories.

Here are 11 things we’re learned thanks to the Freedom of Information Act:

Former Suffolk County Council chief executive Andrea Hill. Former Suffolk County Council chief executive Andrea Hill.

1) SMOKE SCREEN LIFTED ON SPYING

A Norwich pub was spied on by council officers almost 40 times to establish if it was letting customers flout the no-smoking ban in return for contributing to a fund to pay any fines.

The statistics showed controversial snooping powers had been used by the city council 39 times between 2008 and 2010.

2) AMBULANCE WATCH

A catalogue of failings at the East of England Ambulance Service Trust (EEAST) were exposed by the EDP through Freedom of Information laws. It led to new leadership at the trust.

In 2011 we learned that a staggering £37.5million had be paid out in overtime payments in only four years. Our investigation also found that EEAST workers had spent nearly 23,000 days off work sick with stress over the past two years alone – a figure which equates to nearly 63 years.

In 2013 ambulance chiefs were then criticised for leaving hundreds of front-line posts empty – while failing to meet response targets and being repeatedly criticised for letting patients down.

Figures from a Freedom of Information request showed the EEAST left up to 10pc of its front-line jobs vacant and at the same time spent millions of pounds on private ambulances and staff overtime.

In 2011, 207 front-line posts were vacant – 9.7pc of front-line jobs – in 2013 more than 10pc remained unfilled. The figures undermined boasts from ambulance bosses about recruiting 350 new front-line jobs - because 239 of them were actually to fill existing vacancies.

3) CONFIDENTIAL DOCUMENTS IN A SKIP

More than 150 breaches of the Data Protection Act at the region’s hospitals, police forces and councils were uncovered through the law in 2011.

Confidential council documents were found in a skip, papers on 25 children in care disappearing and never recovered and a report containing information about a child considered at risk of harm being hand-delivered to the wrong address, were all revealed.

Restricted police documents were stolen from a Norfolk police officer’s home, while there was a string of breaches at hospitals including cases where sensitive information about patients was lost in the post or left in public places. But bosses insist they take the handling of personal data extremely seriously and in each case where the Data Protection Act (DPA) has been breached, they have taken action to tighten up the system.

In 2014 a further catalogue of mistakes was revealed, including a document containing confidential information about a Norfolk child in care being found in a street, while details of vulnerable elderly people in care in Cambridgeshire had to be retrieved from a bin.

4) GERMAN SHEPHERD IN THE DOG HOUSE

A Norfolk police dog received additional training after it killed a cat while pursuing a suspected burglar and a sheep in a field near Norwich just months earlier, a Freedom of Information request revealed in 2013.

The two-year-old German Shepherd dog was involved in an incident in a field near Caistor St Edmund in September last year in which a sheep was killed before, just four months later, killing a cat while chasing a burglary suspect in Norton Subcourse.

The incidents have come to light after an FoI request was submitted to Norfolk police for access to “if asked” media statements, ones prepared for publication but withheld unless asked for, between May 1 October 31 last year.

It has emerged a statement was prepared confirming the dog’s involvement in an incident in which a sheep was killed on September 16 last year but was not released.

5) CONCERNS RAISED OVER STOLEN ITEMS

Viagra was among an array of items that were stolen from military base, a Freedom of Information request revealed in 2012.

A quantity of anti-smoking drug Champix was also taken from RAF Marham, Norfolk, prompting MPs to say they would be urgently raising the subject of military security with ministers

Other items stolen at Ministry of Defence bases across the county included computers, a karaoke rig and a senior officer’s tent.

6) ANDREA HILL

During 2010/2011, the Ipswich Evening Star (as it was then named), sent in a large number of FoI requests to Suffolk County Council to find information about spending on training, business travel, and photography commissioned for or on behalf of then chief executive Andrea Hill.

The information contained in these FoIs would have been very difficult, if not impossible, to obtain from any other source and helped to explain the situation that had built up at the council’s Endeavour House headquarters over the previous few months.

It also helped to provide material for some of the Star’s (and the EADT’s) strongest headlines over those months.

Interestingly in the last few years, Suffolk County Council has become much more relaxed about providing information in a more relaxed way than going through the formal FoI process.

If we have difficulty in getting answers to factual questions, the suggestion that we might feel forced to send in an FoI request (which can take 20 working days to be processed) is usually enough for the officers to give us the information straight away!

7) HOSPITAL MAINTENANCE

In 2011 we learned that hospital chiefs had spent £23,000 on maintenance for a private finance initiative (PFI) building.

Ipswich Hospital had forked out on odd jobs for the £26 million Garrett Anderson Centre in just three years.

As part of the PFI-funded deal for the Garrett Anderson Centre the hospital had to sign a contract under which it agreed to pay for maintenance work.

Under a PFI scheme, a private firm paid for the Garrett Anderson block, with the trust repaying it over a number of years with interest.

The figures also revealed that more than £1,400 had been spent on 12 call-outs which were later deemed false alarms.

8) HYPOCRISY REVEALED

In 2013 Suffolk County Council was forced to reveal funds it has invested in the tobacco industry had doubled to more than £30 million – despite the authority’s new responsibility for promoting public health. This prompted claims of hypocrisy.

Figures, released under Freedom of Information laws, showed the authority had £32.4m invested in tobacco companies in June. In 2008/09, it was £15.8m.

The figures showed the authority had a total of £17.03m invested in British American Tobacco last month, with £8.55m in Imperial Tobacco Group, £3.64m in Japan Tobacco and £3.18m in Altria Group.

9) ROAD RAGE

In 2013 we learned that compensation claims for pothole damage had risen more than 250% in 12 months.

The data showed a 253% increase in compensation claims i from motorists as the number of claims climbed from 75 to 265.

This was despite the repair bill amounting to £24.1m in 2011/2012 and £26.1m in 2012/2013, according to the figures which were released under Freedom of Information laws.

10) POLICE STRESS

Essex Police were forced to comment on how job cuts were affecting staff left behind after an FoI revealed stress levels at the force.

The Essex Police Federation, the body representing officers, said the figures were indicative of pressure on their members and made the force address the issue.

11) OUT ON BAIL

Some suspects in police investigations had been on bail for almost two years, the EADT exclusively revealed with an FoI to Essex Police.

The request came after proposals from the Home Secretary to impose limits on the amount of time people could be on bail.

•Should FOI rules be curbed? You can tell us about your experiences of using the Act in the comments’ section below.

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