Trouble by the seasidePosted on February 17th, 2012 2 comments
I fear I have become the first victim of a phenomenon that may become known as a “reverse Gove”.
I’ve coined the term myself in homage to legendary Sun editor Kelvin MacKenzie, who managed to get the term “reverse ferret” into common parlance.
His phrase was used when his paper would suddenly turn a full 180 degrees and praise the individual or policy it had hitherto been viciously attacking.
Why am I the victim of a “reverse Gove”? It all stems from an allegedly obscene nursery rhyme about the seaside town of Hastings. The ditty was e-mailed by the town’s police chief Mark Ling from his force mobile. When the story emerged I put in a request saying I’d like to see the rhyme.
First Sussex Police turned me down on the basis that the information was exempt under S.40. I appealed saying how could it be personal, seeing as it was at the centre of a disciplinary hearing, and that it was sent on a e-mail system that specifically warns people the content can be released under FoI legislation.
Well I’ve waited a long time for the appeal ruling to come back and this week, not long after the guidance on Gove, I got my response.
Sussex Police said that they had been incorrect to claim that it was exempt under S.40, but they were still not releasing it to me because it was “personal communication”.
The response from Sussex Police says:
It is my assertion that the rhyme was a personal written communication between a Sussex Police employee and a member of the public and therefore not official information covered by the act. We are therefore not required to consider disclosure.
In making this decision I have considered that whilst you are correct in stating that we have policies informing staff that private communications made on the organisations equipment can be monitored, Sussex Police nonetheless actively allows its staff to use work equipment for their own use. This includes the sending of email, making personal calls or sending SMS messages. To support this we have a process to allow staff who have provided phones to pay for personal calls and texts made.
Whilst the rhyme itself may have been deemed as inappropriate to have been sent by a member of Sussex Police, it was not an official communication but was a personal communication outside of the provisions of the FOI act.
As an aside we find ourselves in a difficult position in that a misconduct hearing conducted under the provisions of the Police Regulations has ruled that it was inappropriate for the information to have been ‘published’ by a member of our organisation (albeit privately) and therefore to release it under FOI to the general public would be exacerbating the wrongdoing.
So it would appear that although Gove and his cronies have been rapped for sending official communications on personal systems, I’m being denied what is claimed to be the exact opposite: personal information sent through an official communications system.
Now, as you might suspect, I don’t agree. If this had been a request for his shopping list or what time he was meeting friends then I’d accept the proposition.
But this is significantly different. It is a communication that was allegedly derogatory in nature about the very town that he had the responsibility of policing. If it contained racist language, is that not a relevant cause for concern about the way racist crimes might be investigated?
Sussex Police considered it so seriously that Mr Ling was the subject of a disciplinary hearing. Indeed after the hearing the force’s Assistant Chief Constable said: “The officer failed to uphold the values the public and the force expect of all our people and disciplinary action has been taken against him.”
I’ll be appealing the decision to the ICO and would be grateful for any advice. Here is a link to one of the articles that came out at the time, and here is one after the disciplinary hearing was concluded.
I’m also linking to FoIMan’s excellent blog which has a spicy debate with the inappropriately named Captain Sensible over the Gove e-mail business.
PS. I do have some sympathy for Mr Ling. I spent six depressing months living in Hastings at journalism school (yes I did go to one) learning mainly shorthand. A quick internet search came up with this description of the town from a band who had to play a gig there.
Hastings. There is very little you can say about Hastings. It is low rent, full of kids and all those kids are drunk with kids of their own. Need I say more.News Department of Education, Hastings, linkedin, Mark Ling, Michael Gove, S.40 (Personal Information), Sussex Police
2 responses to “Trouble by the seaside”
Ganesh Sittampalam February 18th, 2012 at 14:14
I think I agree that it was originally only held by the authority on behalf of the police officer (i.e. not covered).
However by instituting disciplinary proceedings based on it, at that point I think it starts to be held for their own use (because they need it for the proceedings).
I agree with Ganesh – this is simply cherry picking to suit their own need to minimise embarrassment – and we all know embarrassment is not an exemption.
The force had two choices – to say it was a personal communication and nothing to do with them – and then they could probably maintain that the information was not held by them (but as it was on their equipment I think that is a very thin argument and in any rational examination of the facts should be thrown out) or; they discipline the officer (which we understand they did) and in so doing, they MUST construct an argument that this action brought the force into disrepute, and that it was an official means of communication. In creating the disciplinary file they must have included a transcript of the offending verse which IS information as defined in the Act. Whether they are proud of it, or whether disclosure will further aggravate the situation are not valid considerations.
I do not think the content of a verse could come anywhere near to s40 as in itself it will not identify the sender. I am amazed they even tried that one in the first place!
This smacks of a practitioner advising their force to disclose, but senior officers instructing them to refuse – a situation many police practitioners will be familiar with! They are then left struggling to make an exemption fit, knowing that none can be justified.
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