A Great Big List of FOI Ideas

By Matt Abbott | 11th Nov 2016

multi langugage multi user information terminal

David Simon, creator of The Wire and ex Baltimore Sun reporter said the following to a Senate hearing on the future of journalism and newspapers:

“The next 10 or 15 years in this country are going to be a halcyon era for state and local political corruption. It is going to be one of the great times to be a corrupt politician. I really envy them.”

Simon said this in 2009, as a warning to newspaper owners who, he says, showed ‘contempt for their product’. He went on to say that the industry needs “people who care what’s going on in the world” but rejected the notion that citizen journalists could play a key role in this solution.

Recently, the Centre for Investigative Journalism got together with the Centre for Community Journalism to empower community journalists with the tools they need to hold local government to account, and to prove that statements like Simon’s don’t have to be the norm.

At a two-day event at Cardiff University, The Centre for Investigative Journalism delivered workshops on freedom of information, online advanced investigation, and data journalism.

It is our belief that independent community media is an antidote to the democratic deficit created by traditional media outlets, the rise of the internet and the lack of trust in journalism.

By holding those to account, community publishers can plug this gap and address the issues that put journalism at most risk.

To this end, we are putting together a series on investigative journalism starting with this ‘Great Big List of FOI Ideas’ by Claire Miller, senior data journalist at Trinity Mirror.

If you’re looking for ideas about what to ask your local council, police force, university, NHS Trust, environment agency – anything that is a public organisation, then look no further.

Note: this list is set up from the point of view of how Welsh public bodies are organised, unitary authorities and single-level health boards, this is very different from England where you seem to insist on making everything twice as complicated, so check which layer of bureaucracy is responsible for whichever area you want information about before you send your request off.

1. Councils

Councillors and meetings

  • Cost of tea and biscuits at meetings
  • Meeting attendance records for councillors
  • Councillor allowances and expenses
  • Council cash spent on councillors’ meals
  • Council tax reminders for councillors
  • Councillor’s first class travel
  • Training days for councillors
  • Council spending on political advisers

Council Staff

  • Cost of union officials, who spend most of their time on union work
  • Staff who live outside the council area
  • Gagging orders on staff
  • Amount charged to staff for making private calls
  • Jobs get cut – but the agency spending goes on
  • Relocation costs for staff
  • Discrimination payouts
  • Staff breaking computer use/social networking policies
  • Top salaries at councils
  • Money paid to officers to cover their commutes
  • Accidents in council buildings
  • Number of council officers with powers to enter homes
  • The cost of suspended staff
  • Bonuses paid to staff
  • Assaults on council staff
  • Redundancies – compulsory, cost, older or younger workers been hit
  • Cost of finding new top officers
  • The number of club class flights, luxury hotels and trips abroad made by public servants on the taxpayer
  • Cost of recruitment
  • Hotel stays by council staff
  • Calls to speaking clocks/premium lines
  • Websites visited by staff
  • Council workers who took redundancy – and then got new jobs at the same council – cost of redundancy
  • Council spending on mobile phones – the number of phones and the size of the bills and comparisons between councils
  • Council workers overpaid due to payroll errors.
  • Number of days council workers take off sick and how much it costs – including stress
  • Cars for top council executives paid for by the council
  • Amount paid (day or hourly rate) to temporary staff at councils.

Finance

  • Spending on council credit cards
  • Cost of council IT equipment
  • Cost of buying stationary
  • Compensation payments by the council – amount and reason for payout, including the lowest
  • Do local councils support local business by paying bills quickly
  • Cost of strikes
  • Money spent on consultants
  • Whether councils have a policy to buy local
  • Cost of cancelled projects
  • How much council tax is outstanding and how is it being chased, how much is written off?
  • Cost of council refurbishments
  • Money spent publicising cuts (or how council will cope with them)
  • Cuts in grants to charities/community groups
  • Council investments in dodgy companies (arms dealers etc.)
  • Impact of cuts on departments – number of staff, size of budget
  • Council spending on football clubs
  • Council spending on temporary staff
  • Council debts (rent, council tax) collected from the estates of dead people
  • Councils getting liability orders and using bailiffs – locations of orders
  • Council car mileage claim and rates that are higher than the 45p HMRC recommendation
  • Amount councils make from selling on electoral roll data
  • Land sold off by councils

Social Services

  • How many children have been rescued from child sex rings
  • Forced adoptions
  • Children put in care because they are obese
  • Elderly abuse
  • Complaints against social workers
  • The cost of closing care homes
  • Cost of social workers
  • Problem families relocated to the area (apparently covered under Multi Agency Public Protection Arrangements)
  • Opening and closing times of youth clubs – kids back on streets by 7pm?
  • Children in care sent to other council areas
  • Number of children going missing from care – including ages

Highways and Vehicles

  • Complaints about cabbies
  • Hidden criminal offences of taxi drivers
  • Crashes involving council vehicles and what the repairs cost
  • Street lights being switched off
  • How many potholes have been filled in, how many have been reported and cost of fixing them and paying compensation
  • Fixed penalty notices for littering, dog mess
  • Private gritting jobs
  • Cars seized by the council
  • Taxi vehicle checks

Parking

  • Complaints about traffic wardens
  • Overturned parking tickets
  • Unpaid parking fines
  • Ratio of parking spaces to parking permits or parking permits issued by road
  • Fines for using disabled parking spaces
  • Parking tickets – and how many issued incorrectly
  • Cost of resident permits
  • How much councils make off parking fines in top ticketed streets
  • Top earning car parks
  • Car park use falling in the recession?
  • Parking fines for council vehicles
  • Parking meters that don’t give change
  • Attacks on traffic wardens

Planning and Housing

  • Officer’s advice on planning decisions
  • List of approved and proposed phone masts
  • Empty houses – can also ask how many get second home relief and how much council tax is being lost
  • Housing built on back gardens or several houses on plot of one house – and council attitudes
  • Number of people complaining about landlords and letting agents – reason for complaints, and number of prosecutions and fines
  • Big claims for housing benefit
  • Numbers and locations of student homes (versus number of properties registered for council tax)
  • Affordable Homes – where and what are they
  • How much section 106 money councils have received and how much hasn’t been spent
  • Homeless people winning appeals against councils for refusing support
  • Cost of housing benefit cheats

Waste

  • Streets with the most flytipping incidents
  • Cost charged to people to buy a new wheelie bin
  • Fines for leaving the bins out
  • The number of bins private contractors for a council fail to collect each month
  • Cost of replacing wheely bins that are lost or stolen

Schools

  • Pest control in schools
  • Illegal parking outside schools
  • Schools which have dispensation from holding Christian assemblies
  • Is home schooling on the rise
  • CCTV cameras in schools
  • The cost of crime in schools
  • Estimated cost of repair backlog at schools
  • Racism incidents reported in schools
  • School bus cuts
  • Different languages spoken in schools – list of the languages

Pupils

  • Compensation claims by children for incidents in schools…and on school trips – numbers and payouts
  • Rowdy kids on school buses
  • School pupils caught with porn on school computers
  • Largest number of violent incidents carried out by one pupil
  • Special needs tribunals – to appeal not being statemented
  • Racist schoolchildren
  • The reasons for exclusion from school
  • Children losing school places because parents lie on applications
  • Cost of taxis for schoolchildren
  • Education costs for traveller children
  • Truancy facts and figures – days lost, prosecutions, fines.
  • Number of pupils citing bullying as a reason when they look to switch schools
  • Children missing education – children who don’t turn up to school and whose families can’t be contacted
  • School place refusals
  • School clothing grant postcode lottery

Teachers and Staff

  • Disciplinary action against teachers
  • Teachers’ sick days
  • The cost of temporary teachers
  • People in the classroom without a CRB check
  • Attacks on teachers
  • Failing teachers allowed to keep on teaching after being disciplined
  • Spending for ‘off site’ training for teachers
  • Pay rises at colleges and schools
  • Cover supervisors taking lessons – should only do it for a short while using work from teachers
  • How much do headteachers earn
  • Teachers being made redundant

Libraries, Leisure Centres, Sport and Recreation

  • What goes missing from libraries?
  • People banned from libraries and leisure centres – and why they’re banned
  • Antisocial behaviour reported in libraries
  • Footfall at libraries
  • Library fines – broken down by library
  • Spending on library books, and other things found in libraries
  • Items not being taken out of libraries – list of items and the last time they were borrowed
  • Safety fears at a football ground – council safety advisory group which gives permission for clubs to hold matches
  • House seats at council venues
  • Spending on sport – by different sports
  • The wait for an allotment
  • Visits to council run sports centres

Other

  • Number of lost and abandoned dogs found by councils – numbers reclaimed by owners, number put down.
  • Food hygiene inspection details – poorly rated premises
  • Cost of a plaque for ashes scattering
  • Data protection breaches
  • Amount of food thrown away by councils
  • Numbers of stray horses and cost of dealing with them
  • Neighbourhood Renewal Assessments – information on the state of areas
  • Cost of hiring venues for council events
  • Noise complaints and which areas see the most complaints
  • Spending on private detectives
  • Cost of burial and cremation
  • Available burial plots
  • Noise complaints – by ward/street and reasons
  • Pest control call outs
  • Smoking fines – how many?
  • Complaints about noisy animals
  • Body unclaimed in a mortuary for 10 years
  • CCTV camera numbers
  • Value of art
  • Use of Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act powers on staff or the public
  • Complaints about council services
  • Footfall surveys of shopping centres
  • Broken CCTV cameras
  • Spending on Christmas lights
  • Paupers funerals

2. Police

Crime – General

  • Number of dangerous dogs seized, number of attacks reported and the number of dogs destroyed
  • Levels of shoplifting
  • Metal thefts
  • Petrol station drive-offs
  • Police called to incidents at schools, colleges and universities, e.g. burglaries – and what was stolen, hate crimes
  • Crimes in hospitals, train stations, leisure centres, roads with the highest property values, the Welsh Assembly (you get the idea)
  • Number of burglaries that lead to convictions
  • Crimes committed in public buildings
  • Hate crimes against disabled people
  • Thefts from churches
  • Scale of domestic violence – at a police patrol level and number of prosecutions/convictions
  • Burglary hotspots
  • Ride and run crimes involving people getting a cab ride and running off at the end without paying.
  • Crimes involving Facebook, Twitter, eBay
  • How often kidnaps were reported, and what the motives were, and how long people were held for
  • Theft of numberplates
  • Crimes committed by under 10s
  • Number of crimes undetected
  • Petrol thefts
  • Railway cable thefts
  • Reports of sheep worrying – and whether animals were attacked or killed
  • Crimes commited by foreigners

Criminals

  • OAP criminals
  • Prolific and other priority offenders and the number of crimes they’re responsible for

Weapons

  • Number of guns which police had taken off the streets
  • Number of gun licences and who holds them
  • Children carrying offensive weapons and what weapons
  • Items seized as weapons by the police
  • Location of knife attacks

Roads and public transport

  • Highest speed clocked by speed cameras and where
  • Number of images taken by ANPR cameras
  • People using mobile phones while driving
  • Tip off fees for letting recovery firms know to collect vehicles after crashes
  • When are speed cameras turned off
  • Top-earning speed cameras and those which catch hardly anyone
  • The number of people caught ignoring traffic signals and nipping across a dangerous railway level crossing
  • Fined for riding a bike on the pavement
  • Attacks on speed cameras
  • Number of incidents of taking vehicles without owner’s consent – and age of youngest criminal
  • Top 10 streets with the most accidents.
  • Nationality of drink drivers
  • Speed tickets being overturned…
  • …and don’t forget traffic light cameras
  • Bus lane fines
  • Crime on buses
  • Attacks on public transport which aren’t resolved
  • Speed camera detection rates

Drink and Drugs

  • Teenage drug dealers or young people caught with drugs
  • People prosecuted for breaching the smoking ban
  • Women committing violent crimes while drunk
  • Fixed penalty notices issued to drinkers – age breakdown
  • Drink cited in the most crimes?
  • Cannabis factory finds
  • Call outs to pubs and clubs
  • Locations of drug warrant executions – warrants issued under the Police & Criminal Evidence Act, 1984 (PACE) or the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971 – whether properties have been raided more than once.
  • Number of times booze had been seized off people in the streets and for a number of other actions police can take to tackle the issue.
  • Youngest drink driver
  • Number of people stopped for drug possession – youngest, reason for stops

Sex Offences

  • Sex offenders on the run and how many may have fled abroad
  • Arrests for ‘extreme porn’
  • Rape complaints and the number of convictions, also the number not investigated
  • Use of Sara’s Law
  • Sex offences involving the under 16s
  • Where police have found couples involved in ‘indecent acts’
  • The number of child exploitation cases reported to police
  • Sex attacks carried out by relatives

Investigations

  • Cold cases under investigation – and how many have been solved in recent years
  • Cost of individual investigations – both solved and unsolved
  • Top 10 most expensive police investigations
  • Cost of big police investigations – especially failed ones

Sanctions

  • Cautions used to deal with serious crimes…
  • …or worse serious crimes “screened out” so not investigated
  • Number of cases dealt with using restorative justice – and cases involving children
  • How many crimes are solved through other offence been taken into consideration, and the percentage of the total solved cases
  • Numbers of post-charge cautions being given out

Policing

  • Taser use
  • Stop and search on children – with ages
  • Number of Osman warnings dished out by the local police – warnings issued after police have received specific intelligence that individuals were at serious, and imminent, risk of being killed.
  • Where is crime most likely to be solved – detection rates by ward
  • Stuff found on police raids
  • Reports of ghosts, werewolves, witches, aliens, zombies and the like
  • Fugitives on the run and what crimes are they wanted for, and how long they’ve been on the run for
  • Number of stop and searches carried out
  • Spending on forensics
  • Number of crimes solved from information gained through force’s Facebook or Twitter accounts
  • The cost of policing the EDL (or similar) protests
  • Use of CS spray
  • How busy are the armed police?
  • Big Cats
  • Amount of money paid to police informers
  • Number of negative warrants carried out by police (where nothing is found) and cost of compensation as a result
  • Bomb alerts – number and response
  • Number of children having DNA swabs taken by the police – broken down by age
  • Number of children held in police cells – ages

Organisational

  • Filling up police cars with the wrong type of fuel
  • Accidents involving police cars and cost of dealing with them
  • Cost of security for police buildings
  • How much forces hope to make by selling off police buildings
  • Spending on bottled water
  • What police helicopters are used for
  • Cost of fuel for police vehicles
  • Police charging organisations for policing events

Officers and Staff

  • Money handed out to police officers in bonuses
  • Claims of racial abuse made against police
  • Disciplinary proceedings against police officers for breaching rules on social networking sites
  • Coppers under investigation and why – information about disciplinary action
  • Complaints against the police – and how many upheld
  • How much different ranks earn
  • Police officers taking second jobs
  • Crimes committed by police officers
  • Credit card expenses for senior officers
  • Complaints against PCSOs (compared to police officers)
  • Gifts to the police
  • Missing laptops and mobile phones and data losses on the police force
  • How many officers had retired from the force with pensions only to return in civilian roles
  • Assaults on police officers
  • Things stolen from the police
  • Coppers on desk duty through illness
  • Luxury cars for top brass
  • Police jobs that are vacant
  • Officers disciplined for using police computers to run searches on neighbours, family and the local area
  • Forces forcing officers to retire after 30 years
  • Overseas travel bills for police officers
  • Police spending on hotels – number of nights per stay, number of people staying (lets you work out likely room rate).
  • Emergency service personnel taking time off because of stress
  • Historic data on police numbers
  • Cost to police of defending claims (racism, sexism, harassment) from employees

3. Ministry of Justice

Prisons

  • Assaults by prisoners on other prisoners
  • Classes prisoners can take
  • Stuff confiscated from cells, especially mobile phones
  • Compensation paid to prisoners and why
  • People returned to prison for breaking licences, what offences they committed and how quickly they reoffended
  • Items smuggled into prisons
  • DVDs prisoners are allowed to watch
  • Complaints made by prisoners
  • Menus served in prison

Courts and sentencing

  • How many people have been spared jail by being given a curfew order instead, and how many go on to break the order
  • Money recovered using Proceeds of Crime Act powers
  • Number of parents prosecuted for not sending their children to school
  • Items seized at courts

4. Fire

  • Call outs due to false automatic fire alarms and the cost of attending
  • Disciplinary action against fire officers
  • Fire checks and enforcement notices issued to schools
  • Chip pan/chimney fires – the number and the cost of tackling them
  • Animal rescues
  • Fire call outs where no smoke alarm has been fitted
  • Hoax 999 calls
  • Emergency service personnel taking time off because of stress
  • Fire crew response times
  • Compensation claims by fire service staff
  • Number of times firemen have been called out to help paramedics move fat people.

5. Universities

  • What have students been disciplined for
  • How much has been paid in hardship payments and what for
  • Reports on the state of buildings
  • How accurate are university slogans – e.g. Plymouth University’s claim of being “the enterprising university”, only two ex-students set up businesses with university help
  • The ways in which students have been caught cheating
  • How much the university wine/art/plant collection is worth
  • How many students demanded a refund for poor teaching
  • How much universities make from hiring out facilities
  • Where students come from – particularly those at top unis
  • Donations from dodgy sources – dictators and the like
  • How much are universities spending on hospitality
  • Expenses for university bosses
  • Library fines
  • Social network policies and how many people have been disciplined for breaking them
  • Student appeals against their exam and coursework grades
  • Bomb hoaxes at universities
  • Complaints about student behaviour

6. Health Boards

Care

  • Number and seniority of doctors on duty on weekdays and at weekends – are hospitals understaffed at weekends
  • Levels of bed blocking (delayed transfers of care), how many and how many bed days lost, and the longest case
  • How many safety alerts are issued by the NHS National Patient Safety Agency have not been implemented
  • Serious untoward incidents
  • Injuries sustained in accidents in hospitals, patients and staff
  • Number of hospital beds being axed, and where
  • Deaths due to superbugs
  • The number of children treated for eating disorders, and their ages
  • ‘Red lists’ – lists of drugs which are approved for use but which are restricted due to their cost
  • Interventions Not Normally Undertaken list – the things the PCT won’t normally pay for patients to have
  • Number of cases of ‘surgical infection’ in patients who underwent major surgery and the number of emergency readmissions of patients following stays in hospitals
  • Number of available hospital beds and instances of overcrowding
  • Cancelled hospital appointments, as a percentage of all appointments
  • Incentive schemes to encourage doctors not to prescribe antibiotics
  • Number of people held at secure hospitals who have escaped and the numbers who have just left mental health units

Running Hospitals

  • The number of hospital meals binned every day and the cost of doing so
  • How much is being spent on temps and the hourly rates for agency staff – very expensive as a salary
  • Haunted hospital wards
  • Items handed into lost property at hospitals
  • Responses to annual staff surveys – particularly questions along the line of : “Am I able to deliver the patient care I aspire to”
  • Sick days taken by hospital staff
  • Reasons why hospitals call pest control
  • Spending on art in hospitals
  • Hospitals with poor food hygiene ratings, why those who got 0 or 1 got a poor report
  • Stuff reported stolen in hospitals
  • Hospital inspection reports
  • Civil law suits against hospitals – particular departments with high number of cases
  • Hospitals letting injury-claim lawyers advertise in the hospital
  • Amount raised by health boards in hospital parking

GPs

  • Extra payments for doctors to do small operations in GP surgeries
  • GP surgeries where the premises are below expected standards
  • Amount of money paid to GPs for signing documents which allow funerals to be arranged
  • Premium rate numbers to ring the doctors

Surgery

  • The number of surgical instruments returned to NHS hospitals dirty or broken after being sent to be sterilised and whether operations had to be cancelled as a result
  • How many operations go wrong, which ones and how
  • Operations cancelled due to bed shortages
  • Money spent on plastic surgery and which operations
  • Number of tonsil removal operations
  • Foreign objects removed from patients – how many and what
  • Objects left in patients

Contraception and Maternity

  • Babies born to drug dependent mothers, who were transferred to a drug treatment programme to wean them off their addiction
  • Number of times morning after pill has been given out to teenagers
  • Number of times maternity units have had to be closed because they are full.
  • High-dependency cots for newborns being kept out of action due to staff shortages
  • Number of complaints about maternity units
  • Number of mums who give birth when they have addictions – what they’re addicted to.

Accident and Emergency

  • A&E use by postcode
  • How many times people have been diverted from A&E because it is too busy
  • People arriving in ambulances who have to wait to be seen
  • Number of people attending with dog attack injuries
  • Number of gun injuries – information on types of guns

Health Boards/PCTs

  • Money spent on public relations and marketing
  • Top earning bosses
  • How successful have healthy living projects been in getting people to live healthily
  • Luxury cars for top brass
  • Spending on licences to play music
  • Public health funerals (like pauper’s funerals but paid for by hospitals)
  • Why staff have been suspended
  • Costs of private finance arrangements for building and maintaining hospitals
  • Cost of translation services
  • Attacks on staff – details of incidents
  • Cost of priests and chaplains
  • Money spent on taxis for patients
  • Spending by health boards on getting people treated privately
  • Amount owed to health boards by overseas patients not entitled to free treatment – breakdown of where they are from and how much they owe, how much written off
  • Number and cost of exit packages at health boards

Obesity

  • Number of children being treated for weight-linked issues, and their ages
  • Number of gastric band and similar procedures carried out
  • Spending on beds and equipment for oversized patients

Drink and drugs

  • Hospital admissions due to drink, age breakdown
  • People admitted to hospital for drug overdoses – numbers for different types of drugs, youngest
  • Drugs found in overdose cases – which is most common

7. Ambulance

  • How many 999 calls were attended by emergency care assistants only rather than with a fully-qualified paramedic – the split is supposed to be one of each per ambulance
  • Ambulance crashes
  • Police taking injured and sick people to hospital because of ambulance shortages
  • Details of investigations carried out under the Ambulance Service’s ‘Adverse Incident Reporting System.
  • How many alcohol-related incidents involving under-aged drinkers
  • Number of incidents where ambulances waited for more than 20 minutes and how long for – average for each hospital and longest turnarounds
  • Thefts from ambulances
  • Out of date drugs in ambulances
  • Emergency service personnel taking time off because of stress
  • Number of times ambulances are delayed due to technical reasons – such as having faulty sat navs – also do ambulance services liaise with council etc. about road closures
  • Hoax 999 calls

8. Ministry of Defence

  • The number of staff disciplined for ‘leaking’ things from the Ministry of Defence on Twitter and Facebook
  • Compensation claims from the MoD – other than suffered in combat, compared to compensation for combat injuries
  • Breaches of security at armed forces bases

9. Health and Safety Executive

  • Incidents logged to the Health and Safety Executive that happened at schools and details of whether the pupil or staff victim taken to hospital for treatment
  • The number of health and safety improvement notices issued by the Health and Safety Executive to a local company

10. Bus Companies/Network Rail/Department of Transport

  • Numbers of passengers using staff buses and cost of providing services
  • Number of train services that ran with fewer carriages than stipulated in the franchise – Department of Transport
  • Number of trains that run on time
  • Correspondence between train operators and Government about finances
  • Bus crashes
  • Passenger numbers on trains at peak times – most overcrowded trains

11. UK Border Agency

  • How many checks done for illegal workers and the size of fines issued as a result

12. Royal Mail

  • Attacks on postmen by animals
  • Number of letters destroyed each year
  • Postcode area breakdown of complaints and the types of complaints, plus details of the numbers of posties investigated – in context of the number of rounds in each postcode
  • Attacks on postmen

13. Environment Agency

  • The number of rivers which fail to meet European standards for pollution and biodiversity

14. DVLA

  • How many driving tests had to be cancelled due to bad weather, and the knock on effect it has on people trying to book in for a new tests
  • The number of points the person with the highest number of points on their licence has in any given area and the number of drivers in any given area with more than 12 points on their licence
  • The number of people taking their test who required an interpreter to get through their driving tests.
  • Pass rates for men and women, different test centres and the person with the most failed attempts.

15. DWP

  • Employment Support Allowance acceptances by area
  • Appeal success rate for ESA by area

16. Charities Commission

  • Number of registered charities in the red

17. HMRC

  • The number of winding up orders issued by Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs

18. Criminal Records Bureau

  • Crimes flagged on CRB checks on people applying for teaching positions

19. Government

  • Government/council spending on Facebook ads

Image courtesy of Paul Keller – https://www.flickr.com/photos/paulk/

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