Posted on January 6th, 2010 No comments
Police forces look as if they are going to be forced to disclose yet more information about the amount of money they pay their “sources” for information about criminals.
The police service has always attempted to maintain a robust defence to protect data about so called Covert Human Intelligences Sources (CHIS). However, that protection had a huge chunk taken out of it last year in a Decision Notice in relation to informants paid by Northumbria Police [link] and has now been further nibbled away at in a ruling against the Metropolitan Police Service [link].
Arguments have been fairly routine in that the police have acted to protect the confidentiality of their informants and to this end refused to release any meaningful data about the amounts handed over to their “grasses”.
Forces have claimed S.30 (investigations) and S.38 (health and safety). In summary it is claimed by forces that disclosure of the amounts paid to informants as a whole could lead to the identification of individuals which could be a disincentive for sources to come forward in the future and could lead to attacks on the informant.
The counter claim has been that the detail of information that is being asked for – normally the annual figure paid to informants in a wide geographical area – is not going to lead to any individual being identified and therefore the exemptions are not relevant.
The significance of the most recent judgement is the geographical area that the data covers. The request was for the amount paid to informants in Croydon, one of the London boroughs served by the Metropolitan Police Force(MPS).
Lawyers for the MPS stated that in the Northumbria Police decision the potential pool of people (the population of the Northumbria Police area) was 1.5million, whereas Croydon covers just 300,000 people.
The Information Commissioner rejected this argument and obviously felt that the informants within the 300,000 population of the south London borough would still have their anonymity assured even if the total payment figures were disclosed.
The passage of this ruling has a similar history to that relating to the details of the numbers of registered sex offenders in each police area. Initially police would only give the number registered in each force but following a Decision Notice [link] on the subject they were made to give out the numbers by police divisions within each force area.
UPDATE 9.1.10: It would appear from an article in the Times that it is the Police’s intention to appeal the decision to the Information Tribunal.
Posted on April 22nd, 2009 No comments
Police informants will have their names protected from disclosure even after they have died, an Information Tribunal has ruled.
The decision (link) makes clear that police “grasses” need to be guaranteed anonymity beyond the grave or they would never come forward in the first place.
The Tribunal heard evidence from senior officers at the Metropolitan Police Service (MPS) saying that disclosure of the names of informants from the 19th century still created a knock-on risk to modern-day policing.
The MPS were against releasing the names of the individuals, which were held in old police ledgers, stating the information was exempt from disclosure under S.30 (investigations).
In the original case before the Information Commissioner the MPS had said: “Informants expect their identities to be protected indefinitely. If we are unable to reassure them of total anonymity because of possible release under the Freedom of Information Act, the MPS will not be able to recruit future or sustain current informants.
“Agreeing to become an agent or informant is a major step of trust often involving the informant taking physical risk, in betrayal of his own country, family, colleagues and sometimes in feelings of shame or guilt.
“It is difficult to persuade potential agents to take this step and they have to be reassured that no one will ever know what they have done. We believe it is important and that nothing should be done to undermine the confidence of current and potential agents around security and intelligence services keeping identities secret. It would be a major deterrent to some potential agents if they thought their role might be revealed even long after the event.“
The original request for information was made in July 2005 by Mr Alex Butterworth, a historian and author, who was researching European anarchists of the 1880s and 1890s. He knew of the existence of the informants’ ledgers because a Dr L Clutterbuck, a retired Special Branch Officer, had referred to them in his doctoral thesis, completed some years ago, on policing Fenian terrorism.
Roger Pearce, a former Commander of Special Branch, gave evidence to the Tribunal and stated the groups from which informants were drawn were generally subject to an atmosphere of “absolute paranoia”. This strengthened the need to ensure that the necessary element of trust and confidence existed between a handler and the informant.
The Tribunal overturned the Information Commissioner’s original decision that the material should be released stating there was a “overriding if not exceptional public interest” in maintaining the S.30 exemption. It ruled that Mr Butterworth should be able to see the information in the ledgers but that all the names in them should be redacted.
Editor’s note: A strange case here that has taken almost four years to resolve. Much of the MPS’s difficulties in this case were caused by the rather ad-hoc way they had allowed access to documents before the FoI Act came into place. Its arguments were rather undermined in the case before the Commissioner in that they had allowed its former employee access to the documents.
Posted on March 11th, 2009 No comments
The Information Commissioner has ruled that Northumbria Police should disclose how much it paid informants, known in police-speak as “covert human intelligence sources” – for each of the last five years.
Police forces around the country could now be forced to reveal how much they pay “grasses” for information when investigating crimes.
Top officers had opposed more openness saying that it could stop informants coming forward and it might also spark attacks on people suspected of being “grasses”.
The matter was decided after an appeal under the Freedom of Information Act was ruled on by the Information Commissioner. He said the reasons put forward by the police to keep the data secret did “not carry significant weight”.
The Commissioner said the force’s attempt to have the information remain under wraps has failed because S.38 (health and safety) was not engaged. He also said the public interest test was in favour of disclosure in relation to the argument that the information was covered by S.30 (investigations).
Despite police forces turning down a string of requests for informants’ costs under the Freedom of Information Act for data about these payments have been uncovered in the past. The Commissioner made refererence to the fact that some of this information had already leaked out in the past when people, often journalists, used their rights under the Audit Commission Act to view police accounts. Last year a reporter uncovered the fact that the Metropolitan Police had paid £2,131,786 in rewards for information in a single year.
Editor’s note: Although this topic has been something of a hot potato for journalists and the police it would appear the Commissioner was underwhelmed by the arguments on both sides. He stated that the public interest case for releasing the information were “not overwhelmingly strong” but that the case for refusal was even worse, describing it as “not carrying significant weight”. On the balance the pea outweighed the feather. Expect a flurry of requests from reporters wanting to know how much police cash has found its way into criminals pockets.
Read the decision notice HERE.