Revealing the issues that matter to you

Bird's eye view: Above, Sheffield city centre.                                              picture: Ken Webster
Bird's eye view: Above, Sheffield city centre. picture: Ken Webster
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SHINING a light on home truths is a key role of the media in a democracy.

And The Star has been praised by people ranging from trade unionists, businessmen, politicians and tenants’ groups for its Your Right To Know campaign to bring hidden information into the public domain.

Since the New Year, readers have been able to discover a series of facts and figures about public bodies, from councils to schools, police and hospitals, ranging from where your money has been spent to the number of parents prosecuted for children’s truancy.

Much of the information has been gained by using the Freedom of Information Act, through which public bodies can be asked questions and have 20 days to respond.

“It’s opened a lot of people’s eyes,” said Mick Daniels, chairman of Brushes Tenants’ and Residents’ Association, Firth Park.

“The campaign has been a good thing, particularly in terms of letting people know where their money has been spent.”

Fellow residents’ group chairman Pat Hague, of Shirecliffe Tenants’ and Residents’ Association, added: “How The Star has used the Freedom of Information Act has been absolutely spot on because if the newspaper didn’t do it, we wouldn’t know half of what was going on.

“The extent of the pothole problem, just one of the stories revealed by The Star, is disgusting.”

The Star’s Your Right To Know campaign has also caught the attention of Rob Prior, a company director who lives in Broomhill, a daily reader of our website, www.thestar.co.uk.

Mr Prior, a member of Sheffield Motorists’ Forum, said: “The pressure of The Star, particularly through campaigns like this, is a really good force for openness. Local media and newsgathering are absolutely vital for a vibrant city.”

And praise has come from trade unionists.

Chris Jenkinson, regional officer for Unison, said: “The bedrock of any democracy is the right of citizens to get access to information to hold their elected representatives to account, which The Star has been helping to achieve.

“Our union campaigned for freedom of access to information before the legislation was introduced in 2005. However, I think more information could be made available to the public, particularly about deals between public bodies and commercial contractors and suppliers.

“At present, requests for information about such relationships can be refused on the grounds of confidentiality.”

Sheffield MPs said The Star’s campaign was an ‘important’ example of how the Freedom of Information Act should be used.

Sheffield Central Labour MP Paul Blomfield said: “The Star’s Your Right To Know campaign has shown how Freedom of Information legislation can be used to find out key information about our local services.

“David Cameron said the NHS would be protected but the campaign has shown how our local hospitals are being forced to cut jobs.

“It’s very worrying that the Government recently announced that they’re looking at charging for Freedom of Information requests. Labour introduced this legislation to strengthen accountability of public bodies.

“After a year in which it helped to uncover the cosy relationship between News International and the Metropolitan Police, the Government are showing how out of touch they are by considering charges.”

Meg Munn, Labour MP for Heeley, added: “The kind of questions The Star has been asking have been exactly what the Freedom of Information Act is there for. Information revealed has been really important for people to know.

“Publishing such details also encourages public authorities to pay attention to the issues that matter. It’s an important way of holding public bodies to account.”

A spokesman for Hallam MP and Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg said: “We believe sunlight is the best disinfectant. The Liberal Democrats have long campaigned for greater transparency so that you know what is being done in your name and with your money.

“That’s why we campaigned for the introduction of Freedom of Information legislation and why Liberal Democrats in the Coalition Government are going further to make government more transparent.”

What we revealed

Sheffield Council failed to collect £26.5 million in council tax over the last 12 years, including £16.5 million in the last three years.

Freedom of information

THE law was created in 2000 but came into force in 2005.

It allows people to make a request to see any information held by public sector organisations and anyone has the right to make a request.

Unless there is good reason, organisations must reply within 20 days.

People can ask for any type of information, although commercially-sensitive details and information which would be harmful to individuals are exempt.

Organisations may also decline a request for information on cost grounds, if above £450 - or £600 if the request for information is to central government or Parliament.

If a request is refused, an organisation must explain why and an appeal can be made - firstly as an internal review with the organisation concerned, then via the Information Commissioner’s Office.

A further route of appeal, if the Information Commissioner upholds refusal, is to an independent body, the Information Rights Tribunal.

What we revealed

Royal Mail received 192,737 complaints for damaged, late, lost or stolen post in South Yorkshire over the last six years and paid out £1.8 million in compensation.

Sheffield Teaching Hospitals cut 190 jobs over the last year to save £2.4m from its budget - when the Government said there would be no NHS cuts.

Almost 1800 South Yorkshire parents were prosecuted for persistent truanting by their children over the last five years.

Police were called to pubs and clubs around South Yorkshire 11,096 times in the last three years.

Some 10,480 people were arrested for being drunk and disorderly on the streets of South Yorkshire over the last three years, while alcohol misuse cost the health and criminal justice system £25 million in the same period, and 172 children, one as young as 11, needed treatment for drink.

Smoking produced a shock cost to the South Yorkshire economy of £93.8 million, including sick leave, treatment costs, and due to productivity lost by staff taking frequent cigarette breaks.

Sheffield Teaching Hospitals has cancelled 4,117 operations on the day they were meant to be carried out since 2007.

South Yorkshire Police vehicles were involved in 1,152 crashes, which left 214 people injured and cost the force’s insurers £731,510 in compensation claims since April 2008.

Translation services cost South Yorkshire Police £1.9m since 2005, with officials having to use interpreters and translate into 45 different languages.

Sheffield Council has been forced to pay out £1,231,000 for compensation and legal fees for accidents and damage caused by potholes on the city’s roads since 2007. During the last five years, 17,048 potholes have been reported and road repairs made costing a total of £11.4m.

A total of 10,600 days of schooling were lost in a single year - 2009/10 - by pupils taking a month or more off.

Sheffield Council had 188 staff taking at least six weeks’ sick leave each during 2010/11, for a host of problems, while the total days lost to sickness during the year was 11,321.

Sheffield’s ceremonial Lord Mayor’s office has cost £1.1m to run over the last five years - although the annual running cost has fallen from £224,000 in 2007/8 to £175,000 in the year to last April in a bid to become more efficient.

Sheffield has a total of 285 children deemed at risk of abuse and there are 615 city youngsters living in care.

Jeremy Clifford, Editor of The Star

“THE Star launched its Your Right To Know campaign to throw a focus, in these financially difficult times, on how public bodies and organisations are spending our money.

Too often, information that we believe should be readily accessible is not made public, information that organisations would prefer us not to know.

The Freedom of Information Act is a powerful tool by which the media and members of the public can now ask for that information to be made public. And that is just one piece of legislation we have used so far as part of our campaign.

But it is not just about direct financial performance, it also allows us to look at the performance of those organisations and to decide whether or not we are getting value for money.

As a result, in the past two months we have been able to reveal that £26.5m in unpaid council tax has not been collected by Sheffield Council over the past 12 years.

We reported how there has been nearly 200,000 complaints made to the Royal Mail in South Yorkshire about late, damaged or stolen post.

And we highlighted the fact that 1,800 parents in South Yorkshire have been prosecuted for persistent truanting by their children.

The Your Right To Know campaign will be used as a tool by The Star to highlight good and bad performance by those authorities who collect taxes or receive public money and spend it on our behalf.”