22 Dec 2011

Aliens and exorcists – councils’ strangest FOI requests

The Local Government Association releases a list of the most unusual freedom of information requests – but is the cost of freedom too high?


Last year local authorities recieved more than 197,000 requests for information under the Freedom of Information Act. The vast majority of those were for information closely connected to council business, with questions about policy and public spending. But some local people asked very peculiar questions.

A resident in Merseyside wanted to know what contingency plans the fire service had in place to tackle an alien invasion. In Cornwall, ghosts were a pressing concern, with the council being questioned on how much it had spent on exorcists.

And what if Santa crash lands in Cheltenham? Worried that provisions could be being left to chance, a resident wanted to make sure a plan was in place to rescue the bearded man.

Top ten strangest FOI requests 2011

1 How does the council plan to help the brave soldiers of our infantry if and when Napoleon and his marauding hordes invade the district? (West Devon District Council)

2 What preparations has the council made for an emergency landing of Santa's sleigh this Christmas? Who would be responsible for rescuing Santa? Who would be responsible for rounding up the reindeer, and who would have to tidy the crash site? (Cheltenham Borough Council)

3 How many drawing pins are in the building and what percentage are currently stuck in a pin board? (Hampshire County Council)

4 What preparations has the council made for a zombie attack? (Bristol City Council and Leicester City Council)

5 What plans are in place to deal with an alien invasion (Merseyside Fire & Rescue Service)

6 How many holes in privacy walls between toilet cubicles have been found in public lavatories and within council buildings? (Cornwall Council)

7 How does the council manage to cope with the vagaries of Heisenberg's Uncertainty Principle? How does it function given the inherent unpredictability? (Wealden District Council)

8 How much money has been paid to exorcists over the past 12 months? (Cornwall Council)

9 Provide details of uniforms worn by Civil Enforcement Officers including descriptions of embroidered logos and markings, as well as any difference between summer winter wear. (Allerdale District Council)

10 What is the total number of cheques issued by the council in the past year, and how many did it receive? (Scarborough Borough Council)

Source: Local Government Association

The cost of freedom?

Public bodies are allowed to refuse a request that they consider to be “vexatious” or if it would cost too much to reply.

Cllr Peter Fleming, chairman of the LGA’s improvement board said: “Local authorities are now the most transparent part of the public sector. People only need to log on to their council website now to see more information on where councils spend money than has ever been published before.Councils are committed to transparency and accountability and put a lot of time and effort into ensuring that legitimate requests for information are met with full and comprehensive responses.

“However, as this list shows, some of the requests councils receive do not appear to relate very closely to the services they are focusing on delivering. Councils work very hard to keep local communities running as efficiently as possible and anything which distracts from that can affect the value for money that taxpayers receive.”

Research from the University College London showed that the average request made to a local authority took 6.3 hours to process – equivalent to £160 in officer hours. But things are speeding up – in 2009 the average time taken was 8.9 hours.

The number of FoI requests sent to councils has doubled since 2007, however, with most receiving answers. Last year only 6.3 per cent were refused.