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Failed social media costs to dragon attacks: What the Freedom of Information Act unveiled

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Some 11 government departments have spent in excess of £1.1m between 2012 and 2015 to promote policies and campaigns, the Drum has reported.

“The Department for Business, Innovation and Skills (BIS) forked out £3,428 on two Twitter adverts, with the House of Lords investing nearly £600 on an IT course in 2015 for just one staff member,” the article read. 

The alleged fact that BIS used £20,000 to push “restorative justice” on Facebook and the “GREAT Britain” campaign cost almost £394,979, was released under the Freedom of Information Act (FOI).

“Freedom of Information Act. Three harmless words. I look at those words as I write them, and feel like shaking my head ’til it drops off’,” Tony Blair wrote in his memoirs. “You idiot. You naive, foolish, irresponsible nincompoop.”

According to Blair, the man who enforced the act, FOI was one of his biggest mistakes while in office.

He added: “The truth is that the FOI Act isn’t used, for the most part, by ‘the people’. It’s used by journalists. For political leaders, it’s like saying to someone who is hitting you over the head with a stick, ‘hey, try this instead’, and handing them a mallet.”

This scepticism has led to a series of attempts to restrict the Act. This included an attempt to change the costing regime in 2006, to remove parliament from the ambit of the Act in 2006-2007 and introduce greater protections for cabinet documents in 2010.

The monarch and heir may have seemed exempt, but after a nine-year battle to force the publication of a set of secret letters written by Prince Charles, the supreme court has ruled for the memos to be disclosed.

It may have been largely due to the Guardian that the FOI request was passed, but contrary to Blair’s views, the overall largest group to make such requests appears to be members of the public. According to the House of Commons, it has: “Enhanced the UK’s democratic system and made [the country’s] public bodies more open, accountable and transparent.”

Read more Freedom of Information requests:

This may have also led to some bizarre requests, such as council preparations for Santa Clause’s crash landing and Napoleon’s pending invasion (voiced by someone in 2011). 

Due to George RR Martin’s popular novels and adapted TV series Game of Thrones, staff at Wigan Council were asked how they would protect the town in the event of a dragon attack. This was topped off by a request made by Bristol residents for the council to set out its preparations for a zombie apocalypse

But it hasn’t all been about the amount paid to exorcists in the last 12 months and how many pins could be found in particular buildings. Through the FOI, the true cost of Blair’s rebate negotiation was exposed. Some £10bn has been lost over the past five years. 

Last year, under the agreement Margarget Thatcher negotiated, the rebate would have returned £6.1bn to Britain instead of the £3.3bn it is estimated to be.

Inspectors discovered cracks in the reactor cores of nuclear power stations in 2006, raising serious questions about safety. In 2012 the Foreign Office paid £10,000 to re-stuff a 20ft anaconda called Albert. Thatcher tried to persuade athlete Sebastian Coe to support her boycott of the 1980 Moscow ­Olympics. And an accident on UK roads involving the movement of Trident missiles could cause a partial nuclear blast.

And who can forget the high-profile case which involved MPs’ expenses claims?

After a long legal battle about how much information they would release under the FOI, the government was forced to reveal MPs’ expense claims. British people were none to happy that MPs were misusing their expenses, as was evident by Peter Viggers’ attempt to claim £1,645 for a floating duck house in his garden pond. They were even more outraged when it came to light that MPs had tried to prevent such disclosure.

It resulted in a large number of resignations, sackings, de-selections and retirement announcements, together with public apologies and the repayment of expenses. Of course, several, members of parliament were sentenced to prison.

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