TODAY The Star launches a campaign to make public the hidden facts affecting everyday lives – from statistics such as school truancy rates to how councils and other organisations spend your money.
Many facts and statistics never see the light of day because organisations are not obliged to publish them – which means there is a lack of proper accountability.
But, over the next 12 months, as part of our Your Right to Know campaign, The Star will be publishing reports and carrying out investigations into how your money is spent and how well public services are being delivered.
We will be using existing legislation such as the Freedom of Information Act, which came into force in 2005 as a response to years of pressure by civil rights campaigners.
It compels a host of organisations to answer questions within a 20-day deadline.
Our campaign has been backed by key figures, including Sheffield Brightside and Hillsborough MP David Blunkett, a member of the old Labour Government which introduced the Freedom of Information Act.
He said: “Information is power and the more information people have at their disposal, the better they can make a judgement about what is going on in the world on their behalf.
“Requests under the Freedom of Information Act like those by The Star are trying to get to the aspects of public life which would not otherwise come to light.”
Sheffield Council’s chief executive John Mothersole, whose organisation has answered several of the FoI requests posed by The Star, said: “Sheffield Council is 13th out of all public bodies in the country for answering FoI requests within the deadline, which we must do unless we have good reason such as where the answer would be harmful to an individual or confidentiality reasons.
“Some 91.67 per cent of requests made to the council are answered on time which is much better than bodies including the BBC, the Cabinet Office and the Treasury.
“If the people or journalists ask us things we will try our best to answer.”
Jeremy Clifford, Editor of The Star, said: “We live in an increasingly secretive age where a lot of news and information is revealed only if people ask for it.
“The Freedom of Information Act was introduced as an attempt to force public authorities – bodies paid for from your money – to reveal more about how they spend their funding.
“That expenditure covers the way councils, the emergency services and public bodies allocate their resources, how they cover their staffing costs, and what compensation payments they have to pay as well as how good they are at collecting taxes.
“All of these have a bearing on how well our money is spent.
“In education, we should know about truancy rates, assaults on staff, take-up of school meals and how often pupils are expelled.
“And in other areas we have a right to know if people who come into contact with members of the public have criminal records, what public sector sickness rates are and what is the cost of cancelled hospital operations.
“In all of these areas, and many more, information is not freely available. It has to be requested, which is why the Freedom of Information Act was a welcome piece of legislation. But even now there are far too many organisations who want to see the FoI curtailed, claiming it is too expensive to respond to requests from members of the public.
“The Star’s campaign will champion the cause of open access to information and bring you the hidden facts and news stories about how your money is spent that you otherwise would not get to know about.
“It is important that we, as the champions of the community, are able to continue to ask those questions and receive the answers on your behalf.”
The Freedom of Information Act’s scope is wide, covering Government departments, the Houses of Parliament, the armed forces, local government, National Health Service bodies, schools, colleges and universities, police authorities and a huge number of smaller publicly funded organisations.
MPs and peers are covered too – although they wish they weren’t.
Five years ago MPs tried to pass a bill freeing themselves from the Act’s provisions, but it was vetoed in the House of Lords.
But of course there are exemptions and loopholes – too many, say critics.
Understandably the security and intelligence services are not covered by the Act, while the BBC’s journalism is also expressly protected.
Some councils recently asked the Government for permission to charge for Freedom of Information Act requests but Communities and Local Government Secretary Eric Pickles has ruled answers must continue to be provided free of charge – meaning it will be an important tool for this newspaper for years to come.
Mr Pickles said the Government had no intention of changing the law to allow councils to charge newspapers for routine FoI requests.
“If councillors and council officers are to be held to account, the press and public need access to the information that will enable them to do it,” he said.
n ONE of The Star’s first major successes with the Freedom of Information Act involved a two-year battle to reveal details about excessive expense claims made by officers and members of Doncaster Council.
The council rejected an initial FoI request for details of claims by officers and councillors dating back to the Donnygate saga in the 1990s, during which the Audit Commissioner said council representatives had enjoyed a ‘jet set lifestyle’ at ratepayers’ expense.
Some councillors ended up being prosecuted and jailed.
Many were ordered to pay back money they had overclaimed and others, who were not prosecuted, were asked to give back at least part of expenses claims which were considered to be excessive.
But the council’s decision to keep the details secret was overruled by the Information Commissioner, which handles appeals when FoI requests are refused.
The Star made its original request within days of the new FoI Act coming into force in 2005, asking for the names of those who had since repaid money to the council, as well as details of the amounts each individual had repaid.
The commissioner ordered that at least some of the information sought should be made public.
n SHEFFIELD Council spent more than £900,000 in a year hiring marketing and public relations agencies – although it has since reduced costs by 50 per cent.
The authority, which has its own in-house press and marketing team, spent £500,117.81 on marketing and £425,574.16 on PR firms during 2009/10, according to figures released to The Star under the Freedom of Information Act.
Amounts declared by other public bodies in South Yorkshire were much lower. Sheffield Council spent the cash on projects in various different areas, including hiring agencies to provide press releases for development agency Creative Sheffield, Sheffield Industrial Museums Trust, which runs Kelham Island Museum and Abbeydale Industrial Hamlet, and the Sheffield Is My Planet environmental campaign.
n A SHEFFIELD speed camera site raked in almost £150,000 in fines in just over three-and-a-half years, according to figures released to The Star after a request under the Freedom of Information Act
Speed cameras in South Yorkshire forced motorists to pay nearly £2 million over the same period.
The statistics allowed The Star to reveal the county’s top 20 money-making camera locations and how many times they have caught motorists.
The top grossing camera site, catching 6,210 motorists in three years and eight months and making £147,780, is on the A61 Halifax Road, where cameras monitor traffic in both directions near the turning for Chaucer School, Parson Cross.
Coming a close second in the same time period, is the camera on the A57 Sheffield Parkway near Bernard Road Bridge – catching 6,407 drivers and making £113,400.
Third are the average speed cameras on the A616 Stocksbridge Bypass, which snapped 4,144 drivers and earned £81,180, followed by the B6200 Retford Road near Ballfield Drive with figures of 3,643 and £70,020.
Finishing off the top five is the camera on the A61 Penistone Road, near Rutland Road in Sheffield, which caught 1,962 motorists, making £66,300.
In total £1,995,480 was made from speeding tickets across South Yorkshire in the last three years and eight months.
n ALMOST 85 per cent of all burglaries committed in Sheffield went unpunished with no suspect ever being caught, police revealed.
Of more than 22,000 break-ins across the city in the last three years, 18,592 were undetected with no suspect charged.
The figures, which show the total number of burglaries has fallen over the period, were released by South Yorkshire Police under the Freedom of Information Act.
In 2008 there were 8,364 break-ins, with 7,018 unsolved; the following year 7,390 properties were broken into with 5,886 undetected; and in 2010 6,654 burglaries were carried out with 5,688 unsolved.
The figures include business and home burglaries. Detected incidents include those that resulted in cautions and crimes taken into account, as well as criminals who ended up in court.