The powers-that-be we held to account

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Ever wondered where the dog-fouling capital of Sheffield is?

That question – as well as the number of unsolved murders in South Yorkshire and Sheffield Council’s £1.23m compensation costs for pothole accidents – is one of many answered through The Star thanks to an illuminating piece of legislation.

The Freedom of Information Act has sparked more than 400,000 requests for information since it came into force 10 years ago this week. It means bodies such as councils, police forces and health trusts are forced to provide data to anyone who formally asks to see it.

Nationally, it has been behind several ground-breaking releases of secret data, such as MPs’ expenses and mortality rates for NHS heart surgeons.

And in Sheffield it has allowed The Star to run our popular Your Right to Know campaign, aimed at throwing more light on public bodies, since January 2012.

Articles on everything from how many times South Yorkshire Police have used taser guns, to what the council spends on hiring consultants, have been published as a result.

John Mothersole, council chief executive, said the council received about 100 requests a week last year, mainly from the public.

He said: “The FOI Act is a good tool because it does encourage people to ask questions and keeps Government on its toes. Anything that encourages transparency, so the public feel the state or councils are being open, is to be welcomed.

“I don’t feel the FOI is used to prise us open, but it encourages people to feel they can ask us for information and we are happy to let them have it.”

Mr Mothersole said the topic of requests ‘varies enormously’ and in many cases the information would have been available at request without the need for a formal FOI.

Nationally, there are some cases when data will not be revealed through FOI and an 18-hour threshold in place for the length of time it would take to compile figures.

The Government says the number of requests received has risen steadily since 2007, with more than 1,000 a week now put in to central Whitehall departments.

Some information, such as public sector salaries that are higher than £150,000, is now routinely published.

Simon Hughes, justice minister, said: “FOI is not only about the high-profile, headline-making releases of information, but about the right of the individual to find out about the issues that matter to them. It is a fundamental right of all citizens to be able to hold their Government to account.”

The act has been extended to more than 100 new organisations including school academies and Network Rail.

Our top results:

January 2012: More than £1.2 million was paid out in compensa-tion and legal fees for accidents and damage caused by potholes in Sheffield in four years.

June 2012: A pom pom, swallowed coins and even a mobile phone were all objects removed from patients at Sheffield hospitals.

October 2012: Two women who failed their driving tests 23 times topped the table of Sheffield’s would-be motorists who flunked the most.

June 2013: Rogue postmen are to blame for an average of 60,000 letters going missing in South Yorkshire every year for the last three years,

March 2014: Carnaby Road, Hillsborough, is revealed as the worst road in Sheffield for com-plaints about dog fouling.

October 2014: Motorists forked out almost £50,000 in fines after their vehicles were towed during the Streets Ahead road works in Sheffield.

December 2014: South Yorkshire Police revealed to have 28 un-solved murders on its books