Monday, 11 March 2013

NAMA, judges, Orange attacks and Limavady drunks - news roundup

What have newspapers been finding out lately with Freedom of Information? Here's the most recent roundup.

Freedom of Information itself was part of one important story, as Gavin Sheridan of and Information Commissioner Emily O'Reilly ended up in court - the High Court that is, as the National Asset Management Agency (NAMA), the government's 'bad bank', sought to overturn a decision of the Commissioner. She had ruled, in response to a request from Gavin, that NAMA is a public authority.

NAMA is not subject to Freedom of Information legislation but would be subject to Access to Information on the Environment regulations - but only if it is a public authority, a definition it sought to avoid when Gavin made a request under the regulations. The Commissioner, who as well as regulating the Freedom of Information Act is also Commissioner for Environmental Information, agreed with his interpretation. As the Irish Examiner reported, in a ruling that will have surprised nobody outside NAMA, the Court decided that the authority, which exists to serve the public, is indeed a public authority. The Irish Times observed that Justice Mac Eochaidh's ruling dismissed the agency's claims not to be as 'absurd'. Thanks to a parliamentary question from TD Pearse Doherty, Gavin was able to report that the case has cost the taxpayer more than €120,000.

Money continues to be the main focus of many FOI stories. The Irish Times reports that the state's judges have been paid €1.67 million in expenses in the past year, mainly for travel and accommodation. The paper also reported that the opposition party Fianna Fail received almost half a million Euro to cover its legal costs in a recent tribunal. Meanwhile, the Irish Examiner reported on a costly decision by the liquidator of the IBRC, which took over the assets of the disgraced Anglo-Irish Bank. Not challenging a ruling by a judge in London could end up costing Irish banks €460 million.

Despite having a stronger Freedom of Information regime, people living north of the border also have to struggle to get the facts they need, as a letter writer to the Belfast News Letter argued:
Stormont departments, long noted for their reluctance to live by either the letter or the spirit of the Freedom of Information Act (FOI), have taken a new approach to their record-keeping whereby they do not record information which could be embarrassing if made public – thereby escaping the provisions of the Act.
Writing in the paper, Fiona O'Cleirigh argues that the lack of interest in the province by mainstream British media means that central government spending is subject to very little scrutiny:
Strong stories abound in this complex community, which includes a fascinating aerospace industry, and an assortment of quangos that would hardly look out of place in the twilight zone.

When stories do get uncovered, they tend to be about violence rather than money. With 114 attacks made on Orange halls in the past two years, just 12 people have been arrested and only four were charged, according to information disclosed to the News Letter. Meanwhile, the Londonderry Sentinel reports that in Limavady, crimes of violence following closing time in pubs and clubs in the town are averaging one a week.

Saturday, 2 March 2013

25 Things We Know Now about Northern Ireland

The website What Do They Know allows people to send Freedom of  Information requests direct, online, to public authorities. Here is a selection of things we know now about Northern Ireland, based on recent requests using What Do They Know.

  1. The  Northern Ireland  Civil  Service does  not  have  a  policy  on people  in  a  close  personal  relationship  working  together.
  2. Craigavon Borough Council asks such staff to declare such relationships, but does not record them despite this being proposed as a policy in a report highly critical of the council.
  3. The Police Ombudsman for Northern Ireland has a policy – apparently – of neither confirming nor denying whether individuals identified in their investigations are police informants. But if such a policy exists, it is not actually written down.
  4. Newry and Mourne District Council (‘SAVE PAPER! PLEASE THINK BEFORE YOU PRINT!’) have 3-4 Lever Arch files of material on the naming of a playground after hunger striker Raymond McCreesh … which they printed out and sent to the requester.
  5. In the last financial year, the Northern Ireland Policing Board had 22,623 words translated into Irish, and only 32 words into Ulster Scots.
  6. Northern Ireland uses around 246 million carrier bags a year. The Department of the Environment’s levy on carrier bags is expected to raise £2.3 million in a year.
  7. The Police Service of Northern Ireland had arrested 195 and charged 164 in connection with flag protests by 20 February.
  8. Northern Ireland Housing Executive tenants are not specifically prohibited from flying flags on their homes.
  9. Belfast City Council did not charge the company managing the Christmas Market in City Hall any fee when they extended it by three days, to make up for the impact of flag protests on traders. They did this because they believed it would attract people back into the city centre.
  10. The Council considers it would take 24 hours of staff time to find the names of all the companies approached since 2006 to tender for developing its website.
  11. Peter Tallack, a dog expert in the case of the ‘pit-bull type’ dog Lennox, which was put down last year by Belfast City Council, was paid a total of £10,598.57 in respect of training, court appearances, dog examinations and travel.
  12. Banbridge Borough Council have still not responded to a request from last November about dog fouling statistics.
  13. Belfast Education and Library Board has still not replied to a query about construction projects.
  14. Lisburn City Council has two non-white employees, out of 525.
  15. Civil Service departments spend quite a lot of money on media monitoring, from the Department of Social Development which spent £7,340.43, to the Department of Education which spent £15,884.88. The Department of Justice, however, was way out of line: it spent £60,667.
  16. In 2012, Queen’s University Belfast made 412 offers to students for its 262 places in Medicine.
  17. The University has a scoring system for interviews for its dentistry courses. However it believes it is not in the public interest to disclose how it works. Definitely not.
  18. The Deputy Chief Constable of Northern Ireland does NOT have a superinjunction of any kind.
  19. The Northern Health and Social Care Trust has paid out more than £8 million in legal settlements for clinical negligence over the past 5 years.
  20. On 27 December last, in Accident and Emergency at Causeway Hospital, between 5.30pm and midnight, the average time before triage was 35 mins, and then 168 minutes before seeing a doctor (Category 4).
  21. In the last five years, 5 out of 17 grievances and 6 out of 8 dignity at work cases in the Department of Education were fully or partly upheld.
  22. The highest-paid staff member of the University of Ulster is paid nearly fifteen times as much as the lowest-paid.
  23. There are 24 children in Belfast primary schools whose home language is Somali.
  24. Ballymoney Borough Council has issued just two Fixed Penalty Notices for dog fouling since 2005.
  25. Two Health and Social Care Trusts in Northern Ireland have bought toilet rolls direct from a supplier, possibly because of shortages in the regional warehousing.