Frivolous Freedom of Information requests about alien abduction and squirrel attacks are wasting thousands of pounds of taxpayers’ money, health chiefs have warned.
Among those submitted in the past year have been questions about the prevalence of alien encounters, the number of times the wrong limb has been chopped off by mistake, and the number of injuries sustained in squirrel attacks.
Health chiefs today said that the cost of dealing with such requests ran into thousands of pounds every year, and appealed for people to think carefully before submitting an FOI request. They also warned doctors were being diverted from their work to deal with specialist queries instead of dealing with patients.
Among the queries raised was: “How many patients claimed to be subjected to paranormal experiences between September 2006 and present within this health board?”, listing as examples “precognitive dream experiences, near death experiences, hearing voices, seeing apparitions, UFO sightings, out of body experiences”.
The questioner also asked what treatment had been recommended, and how many of the patients had a previous record of mental health issues.
The board did not provide figures, but wrote back: “Within NHS Lothian we do not use the term paranormal experience. Many patients may experience hallucinations or hear voices. This is due to their illness.”
Another questioner asked how many patients had been sent to Edinburgh Zoo for an MRI scan because they were too large for hospital scanners. The answer was none. That was also the response to a query on the number of times in recent years the wrong limb had been amputated, or the wrong organ removed from a patient. And one FOI request asked for details of attacks by a range of animals, including squirrels, badgers, monkeys, sheep and snakes.
Alan Boyter, the NHS Lothian director responsible for overseeing FOI requests, said: “Freedom of Information is a legal requirement, and we also have a requirement to respond to FOIs within 20 days, so there are reasonably tight turnaround times.
“I’m a public servant, so I have absolutely no difficulty with any member of the public, or anybody else for that matter, who wants to know something about their NHS, writing in under Freedom of Information, and if we’ve got the information we should give it to them. “But if I get FOIs asking how many people have been treated after seeing extra-terrestrials, that’s different. It would not be unreasonable to say that thousands of pounds are getting wasted.”
NHS Lothian receives more than 500 FOI requests a year, added Mr Boyter.
Margaret Keyse, acting Scottish Information Commissioner, said: “While some requests can appear frivolous at face value, it’s important to remember they may stem from genuine underlying concerns – authorities won’t always know the value of the information to the person making the request.
“In any event, such requests can also normally be answered with relative ease by an authority, simply by informing the requester that it doesn’t hold any information which would answer their question.”
An answer for everything
NHS Lothian employs one full-time member of staff to deal with FOI requests, but many more people are involved in answering them.
Alan Boyter, the NHS Lothian director responsible for overseeing FOI requests, said the process of answering the queries was complicated.
“The query comes into the system and someone identifies it as an FOI,” he said. “They’ve got to then decide who within the organisation will know the answer and they will ask the relevant person what the answer is.
“They will get that answer back and draft a letter. Because FOIs have potential legal and other consequences, the board has decided that a single executive director is the person who signs the FOIs, so that happens to be me.
“But given the enormous range of topics covered, no one person could know if every answer is 100 per cent accurate, so the relevant senior manager with responsibility for whatever area the question is in would say to me: ‘We agree, that is a proper and correct answer.’
“It then comes to me and I sign it and it goes to the chief executive’s office, so the chief executive can see what questions are getting asked and what answers we’ve giving.”