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CRIME SECRET: Crown Office flouting of Freedom of Information laws results in intervention by Information Commissioner – as Police, Prosecutors & Scottish Ministers obstruct public interest disclosures

19 Apr

Crown Office investigated over disclosure delays. PROSECUTORS based at the Crown Office & Procurator Fiscal Service (COPFS) in Edinburgh have become so resistant to Freedom of Information legislation – officials at the £110m a year public body have in some cases, taken up to six months to reply to Freedom of Information requests.

Details of the delays – which some contend were deliberate – came to light in documents disclosed by the Scottish Information Commissioner (SIC) – Rosemary Agnew – who has been forced to conduct a number of ‘interventions’ with public bodies across Scotland after serious failures in adherence to Freedom of Information legislation came to light.

Details released by the SIC – Public bodies subject to interventions by Information Commissioner – reveal in one of the ten interventions conducted by the SIC since September 2015 – the Crown Office was investigated for multiple and lengthy delays of many months per request in responding to Freedom of Information requests.

The secretive, almost unaccountable public body currently run by Lord Advocate Frank Mulholland – which manages criminal prosecutions across Scotland is now subject to monthly monitoring as a result of the SIC’s investigations and meetings between senior staff from the Scottish Information Commissioner’s office and the Crown Office.

A document obtained from the SIC states: “Head of Enforcement (HOE) and Deputy Head of Enforcement (DHOE) met with COPFS 8/1/16 to highlight issues. Agreed to meet in 07/16 to discuss progress. HOE also reviewing COPFS procedures. COPFS subject to monthly performance monitoring.”

Allegations have since been raised by journalists a deliberate policy of delay was being orchestrated by COPFS staff in relation to FOI requests

And, in a sinister move by prosecutors – a number of enquiries to the Crown Office in relation to requests for media statements on activities including large fraud investigations involving individuals and accused persons known to have links to Crown Office personnel – have resulted in reporters being denied media quotes and told to turn their communications into FOI requests.

Monitoring of how the Crown Office complies with FOI legislation comes at an unwelcome time for prosecutors, after it was revealed Crown Office staff & prosecutors have been charged with serious criminal offences, reported here:  CROWN CROOKED: Crown Office crime files reveal Scotland’s Prosecutors & staff charged with Drugs crimes, Police assault, threats & perverting the course of justice.

A number of other public bodies are named in the documents including, Police Scotland, Scottish Ministers, the Scottish Fire and Rescue Service, NHS Scotland Loch Lomond and The Trossachs National Park Authority & Falkirk Council.

In the data release it is revealed Police Scotland scored the most number of interventions from the Scottish Information Commissioner’s office, totalling three interventions at various levels.

In one case, details release by the Scottish Information Commissioner reveal Police Scotland maintained a practice of sending out locked pdf documents with security protocols forbidding their printing.

A file disclosed by the SIC in response to an FOI request stated: “Asked Police Scotland to change its practice and stop sending us (and applicants) locked pdf documents, which can’t be printed out.. We are still waiting for an accessible copy of a document required for case 201501763.”

“Police Scotland has raised the issues of locked documents and undated letters internally.” The issue is subsequently referred to as: “Issue resolved”.

In a Level two intervention with Police Scotland, files released by the Scottish Information Commissioner reveal details of Police Scotland’s information publication scheme.

The SIC asked Police to conduct a “Review of publication scheme (guide to information) from time to time. Proactive publication in the public interest.”

Police Scotland was then “Asked to review guide to information due to broken links etc. and currency of information.”

From information now made public by the SIC, the issue was raised with Police Scotland on 12/11/16 and a reminder issued on 18/02/16. The SIC appears to be awaiting an outcome.

In one of two interventions with the Scottish Government, documents disclosed by the SIC revealed there was a concern at the lack of knowledge of Freedom of Information at the Scottish Government.

Details of the level one intervention with Scottish Ministers revealed: “Meeting with the Office of the Office of the Chief Researcher, instigated by them. Recorded as a level 1 intervention as concerns about level of FOI knowledge within major area of Government.”

“Note of the meeting is on file.Practice areas:- who is covered by FOI. Seemed unaware that Universities are- Section 60 Code IRO contracts and procurement- sections 27, 33 and 36 specifically.”

Power to Intervene:

Powers granted to the Commissioner by the Freedom of Information (Scotland) Act (FOISA) allow the Scottish Information Commissioner to intervene where it is identified that an authority’s practice is or may be: (i) in breach of its statutory duties under the Freedom of Information (Scotland) Act 2002 (FOISA) and/or the Environmental Information (Scotland) Regulations 2004 (the EIRs); (ii) falling short of Government guidance, particularly the Section 60 Code.

Anyone who makes a Freedom of Information request to a public authority can request an intervention by the Scottish Information Commissioner, if the public authority in question does not adhere to FOI legislation.

The SIC’s website states: “All interventions will be appropriate and proportionate, and based on robust and accurate evidence.The term “Intervention” covers a range of activities: from providing advice and assistance to authorities in relation to good practice, to formal enforcement action carried out under the Commissioner’s Enforcement Policy.”

Levels of interventions conducted by the Scottish Information Commissioner:

Level 1: These are minor failures to follow good practice. In these cases, we will provide informal advice and assistance to authorities, pointing out the failure and suggesting remedial action. In such cases, individual officers are empowered to give advice to authorities if a relevant failing is identified as a result of an application or enquiry to us and to decide what follow-up action is required.

Level 2: These are ongoing failures by an authority to follow good practice in a specific area of practice. In these cases, an appropriate manager (DHOE, HOE, HOPI or the SIC) will contact the authority to discuss the issues and suggest remedial action. Level 2 interventions will require follow-up contact with the authority to ensure that appropriate action has been taken.

Level 3: These are more serious or systemic failings which have been identified and we do not consider the issue can be rectified without requiring the authority to put in place an action plan to address the issue. In such cases we may invite an authority to carry out a self- assessment using one or more of the modules in our self-assessment toolkit.

Level 4: These are when an authority consistently fails or refuses to comply with FOISA, the EIRs or statutory guidance despite previous interventions by us. In these cases, we may issue (or give warning of our intention to issue) a practice recommendation in terms of section 44 of FOISA specifying the steps that an authority must take in order to conform with its duties under Government guidance. Alternatively, we may issue (or give warning of our intention to issue) an enforcement notice under section 51 of FOISA requiring an authority to take specified steps to comply with Part 1 of FOISA or with the EIRs. We may also decide to carry out an on-site assessment of an authority’s arrangements for handling information requests.

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