Freedom of Information requests: The good, the bad and the downright silly

As the government prepares to release annual statistics for Freedom of Information requests, Yahoo! News takes a look at five of the best FOIs in the last 12 months – from the extraordinary to the extraterrestrial.

A freedom of information act, said Tony Blair as leader of the opposition in 1996, "will signal a new relationship between government and people: a relationship which sees the public as legitimate stakeholders in the running of the country."

Writing in his memoirs some years later, the ex-prime minister sang a somewhat different tune, noting that it was one of the biggest mistakes of his political career.

While Blair believed the act presented unwanted obstacles to effective governance, the cost associated with the act was also a point of objection. Although public bodies can refuse requests if believe they will cost over £600, the act has cost taxpayers a reported £31million since 2005.

But FOIs have exposed racism in the police force, corruption in local government and waste in hospitals.

Some of Britain’s stranger curiosities have also been satiated by the 197,000 requests made since it came into force in 2005.

The Local Government Association’s list of the most "bizarre" FOI requests – including council preparations for a Santa crash landings and Napoleon’s pending invasion – resulted in calls from Tory MP Simon Hart for stronger regulation to curb "bonkers" requests.

But in its seven-year existence the act has helped revolutionise British politics, simultaneously causing and exposing government waste, provoking and shaping debate. Here are just five things we’d probably never have found out over the last 12 months if it wasn’t for the Freedom of Information act:

Racism in the Met…

In the wake of the conviction of Gary Dobson and David Norris for murder of black teenager Stephen Lawrence in 1993, and some 13 years after the MacPherson report found the police force to be “institutionally racist,” the Freedom of Information act was used in April this year to help expose cases of continuing racism within the Metropolitan Police.

Thanks to the act Channel 4 News were able to reveal that 120 police officers at the Metropolitan Police were found guilty of racist behavior over the last decade. And, while six officers were forced to resign, just one of the 120 was dismissed. Updating the story to include data between 1999 and 2012, the broadcaster found that 293 police officers were disciplined for racist behaviour, while 749 were referred to the Independent Police Complaints Commission (IPCC). The data prompted a strong response from new Met Commissioner Bernard Hogan-Howe, who said he would not "stand for any racism or racists".

Thousands of hospitals patients discharged in the middle of the night every week…

Requests to NHS trusts and The Department of Health have resulted in several high-profile scoops since the Freedom of Information came into force in 2005 – most notably in 2006, when it was revealed that the NHS had made available Implanon implants to girls from the age of 13 in an attempt to cut teenage pregnancies. Earlier this year, FOI requests established a bleak picture of the impact of government austerity cuts on the NHS’ mental health service.

However, one of the most shocking FOI stories of the past twelve months came in the form of a Times investigation, which discovered that 8,000 NHS patients are discharged in middle of the night every week. The figures revealed that, in the last year, 239,233 patients had been discharged from state-run hospitals between the hours of 11pm and 6am in an attempt to free up hospital beds.

Information was requested through the act from NHS Trusts and Foundations Trusts across Britain, allowing data to be broken down. At some hospitals, for example, over seven per cent of all patient discharges were between these hours.

Tobacco firms snoop on government policy…

Public bodies, under the Freedom of Information act, have found themselves occupied by tobacco companies on more than one occasion. A reporter at the Sunderland Echo found that Tyne and Wear Local Government Pension Fund had more than £35m tied up in tobacco companies – and that Durham County Council had invested around £9m in General Dynamics Corp, an arms manufacturer that produces components used in cluster bombs.

And while a run-of-the-mill FOI request from a journalist resulted an unlikely scoop, heads were turned in September 2011 when it was revealed that Philip Morris International, the world’s largest tobacco company, had been putting the act to use itself. The information, available on – a site that holds all FOI requests – revealed that the company submitted requests to the Department of Health in order to access government documents relating to tobacco regulation as well to data from a research project at Stirling University funded by Cancer Research UK, that included interviews with British children about their attitudes to smoking.

Leicester isn’t prepared for the night of the living dead, but Bristol is…

"Dear Leicester City Council", begins one of the more frivolous Freedom of Information requests "Can you please let us know what provisions you have in place in the event of a zombie invasion? Having watched several films it is clear that preparation for such an event is poor and one that councils throughout the kingdom must prepare for. Yours faithfully, Concerned Citizen."

Leicester City Council was happy to respond although admitted it has "no specific plans in place" as "zombies are not specifically mentioned in [its] Council Emergency Plan".

Several requests flooded in, the most amusing coming from a “concerned Bristol resident and responsible parent”, asking if “Bristol City Council is better prepared [for a zombie invasion] than those naysayers in the east midlands.”

Bristol City Council was happy to, imparting the following information: “Intelligence from [redacted, on grounds of national security] indicates that certain parts of the Bristol area have an enhanced zombie prevalence, including Whitchurch Park. False positives have been found in Stokes Croft, which are subject of under-cover investigation through use of [redacted, on grounds of national security].”

The truth is really out there…

Following dozens of requests under the Freedom of Information act, the Ministry Defence – back in January – agreed to disclose its full list of reported UFO sightings. While Chief Constable Ian Arundale, of Dyfed Powys force in Wales, had complained in December of last year that officers are being forced to spend hours answering "bizarre" queries about UFOs instead of being on the beat, information released through FOI requests shows hundreds of reports of strange flying objects and even “encounters with aliens”. 

Due to the high number of requests, information relating to UFO sighting between 1997 and 2009 is already available on the MoD website – and the unidentified aerial phenomena (UAP) report was released last year following an FOI request from 2006 and includes almost 9,000 pages of UFO sightings and incidents, photographs and drawings, RAF investigations, and government UFO policy documents.  This, however, hasn’t stopped requests by sky-gazers for information regarding preparations for an “alien attack by a extraterrestrial or non terrestrial being…”

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