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FOI PROBE: Holyrood Committee hear Scottish Information Commissioner backed off promise to bring Freedom of Information to Scottish Police Federation – even after Info. Tsar knew England & Wales Police Fed. already complied with FOI legislation

05 Nov

Scots Police Fed FOI scrutiny. A POST LEGISLATIVE inquiry into Freedom of Information law by the Scottish Parliament has published an account of how the Scottish Information Commissioner backed off promises to recommend FOI compliance for the union which represents all Police Officers in Police Scotland.

Evidence submitted to the Public Audit and Post Legislative Scrutiny Committee (PAPLS) inquiry reveals how the office of the Scottish Information Commissioner initially promised to recommend Freedom of Information compliance for the Scottish Police Federation (SPF) on the social media network Twitter.

However, the SIC then backtracked over multiple enquiries from journalists as to what further work had taken place by Daren Fitzhenry and his staff.

In a tweet dated 18 May 2017, the Scottish Information Commissioner’s office wrote in response to calls for FOI compliance to recommended for the Scottish Police Federation: “Thanks – we’ll add it to our list of bodies to propose to Ministers. Individuals can also make their own representations to the Scot Gov”

The positive response came after the SIC was informed of the Freedom of Information compliance status of the Police Federation of England & Wales – which is enshrined in legislation:

Freedom of Information Act etc: Police Federation for England and Wales: The Police Federation for England and Wales is to be treated for the purposes of— (a)10the Freedom of Information Act 2000,(b)the Data Protection Act 1998, and (c)section 18 of the Inquiries Act 2005, as if it were a body listed in Part 5 of Schedule 1 to the 2000 Act (public authorities).

However, after further enquiries from the medial, no further work on the issue by the Scottish Information Commissioner took place, and in response to further enquiries, the SIC claimed they were under resourced to look into the case and requested journalists make a recommendation to the Scottish Government.

An investigation by journalists into the Scottish Police Federation funding – by using Freedom of Information laws to quiz the Scottish Government – revealed SPF Boss Calum Steele, wrote to the Scottish Government SEVEN DAYS after the Information Commissioner’s promise to recommend FOI compliance for the SPF.

The letter from PC Calum Steele to the Scottish Government informed Ministers the Scottish Police Federation no longer wanted an annual public cash handout of £374,000.

The annual Scottish Government funding grant – which has seen the Police Union rake in significant amounts of public cash over the years – is thought to be one of several reasons serving and former Police Officers along with journalists are seeking FOI compliance for the Scottish Police Federation.

The Public Audit and Post Legislative Scrutiny Committee has now published an evidence submission from journalist Peter Cherbi on how the Scottish Information Commissioner backed off their initial promise to recommend Freedom of Information Compliance for the Scottish Police Federation.

The full submission, available online here is published below:

PUBLIC AUDIT AND POST-LEGISLATIVE SCRUTINY COMMITTEE

POST LEGISLATIVE SCRUTINY – FREEDOM OF INFORMATION (Scotland) ACT 2002

With regard to an example of a failure by the Scottish Information Commissioner to recommend an organisation (in this case the Scottish Police Federation) for FOISA compliance, I would like to submit this matter for consideration by the committee

In my role as a journalist, I was approached by persons including ex Police Officers who drew my attention to the lack of FOI compliance for the Scottish Police Federation and problems which members had experienced when attempting to make enquiries with the SPF – which – had the enquiry been via Freedom of Information legislation, would have been answered, and within a legal framework.

Noting the equivalent Police Federation of England & Wales has been FOI compliant for some time, I approached the Scottish Information Commissioner with a request the Commissioner look to recommend compliance for the Scottish Police Federation – given various transparency issues which had been brought to my attention, and the fact the equivalent Police Federation of England & Wales was already FOI Compliant.

However, while initially the SIC made what appeared to be a policy statement via twitter that they would “add it to the list of bodies to propose to ministers” on 18 May 2017 via twitter https://www.twitter.com/FOIScotland/status/865234073316470785 – further communications between myself and the SIC saw the Scottish Information Commissioner retreat from their earlier position.

A further chaser to the SIC on recommending compliance for the SPF then saw the SIC claim it was under-resourced, and could not undertake the work (although the SIC had written in considerable length on the issue to myself).

Ultimately the SIC then suggested I personally make a recommendation to Scottish Ministers on the matter – however, given what has already been learned in terms of how the Scottish Government treat such requests, and indeed my own experience of Freedom of Information compliance with the Scottish Government, a recommendation from myself as a journalist was unlikely to carry the same weight as one from the Scottish Information Commissioner.

The material accumulated as part of my research, including FOI disclosures from the Scottish Government, and contact with the Scottish Information Commissioner – is published online here: PROBE THE FED: Calls for Holyrood to probe secretive Scottish Police Federation as files reveal SPF General Secretary asked Scottish Government to withdraw £374K public cash grant funding – after social media transparency calls from cops

Given the Scottish Police Federation were in receipt of some £374,000 a year of public funds – an additional matter drawn to my attention by serving & former Police officers, I then sent FOI requests to the Scottish Government and took up the issue – noting that since the SPF was in receipt of public funds, this was an additional reason to bring the organisation within FOISA.

However, it is worth noting after I began to raise the issue with the Scottish Information Commissioner on social media, and some days after I approached the SIC with regards to recommending SPF compliance with FOISA the General Secretary of the SPF wrote to the Scottish Government and requested cancellation of the public cash grant.

It is difficult to conclude the raising of FOI compliance with the SIC, and the SPF’s decision to cancel the £374,400 public cash grant – all occurring within the same week – is a coincidence.

I feel the Committee should look into this matter, as an example of the process of recommending organisations for FOISA compliance.

And perhaps with the question of public funds to the Scottish Police Federation, and the notable request by the SPF for withdrawal of the public cash grant – only days after the issue of FOI compliance was raised publicly, there may be issues which the Committee may wish to explore further.

Among the additional FOI documents disclosed by the Scottish Government include some, but not all minutes of meetings & discussions around the grant funding for the Scottish Police Federation, and as has been consistent with recent Scottish Government releases, documents are subject to significant redactions.

However, while the letter from the SPF General Secretary to the Scottish Government reveals scant detail of SPF finances, former and currently serving Police Officers have posted their concerns on social media with regards to figures of up to ten million pounds held by the Scottish Police Federation in bank accounts & assets.

Social media postings by current and former Police Officers also refer to trips undertaken by SPF representatives including Callum Steele and suspended Sheriff Peter Watson – to various gatherings funded by the Scottish Police Federation.

Meanwhile, as current & former Police Officers & journalists asking questions of the SPF are either blocked online, or subject to social media attacks by supporters of the Scottish Police Federation and politically friendly elements – some of whom give after dinner speeches or lobby for public cash for their ventures, the Scottish Information Commissioner appears to have reneged on their enthusiasm for recommending FOI compliance for the SPF.

HOLROOD COMMITTEE PROBES FREEDOM OF INFORMATION LEGISLATION

The Post Legislative Scrutiny of the Freedom of Information (Scotland) Act 2002 began with MSPs taking evidence from stakeholders on 22 March 2018. The Committee took evidence from the Scottish Information Commisioner on 10 January 2019 and agreed to undertake post-legislative scrutiny of the Freedom of Information (Scotland) Act 2002.

A SPICe briefing was also prepared for the Committee and also contains information about recent developments.

A second SPICe briefing was prepared, which includes global right to information data, September 2019.

Call for Evidence

The Public Audit and Post-legislative Scrutiny Committee launched a call for written views as part of its post-legislative scrutiny of the Freedom of Information (Scotland) Act 2002 (the 2002 Act). The call for views launched on 6 of March 2019. The deadline was extended until the 21 June 2019.

Call for Views; Read the written submissions

The Freedom of Information inquiry has since heard evidence from journalists in an earlier session, where the Committee took evidence in a roundtable format from – Claire Cairns, Coalition of Carers; Severin Carrell, Scotland Editor, The Guardian; Dr Craig Dalzell, Head of Policy Research, Common Weal; Rob Edwards, Director and co-founder The Ferret; Carole Ewart, Convener, Campaign for Freedom of Information Scotland; Stephen Lowe, Policy Officer, UNISON Scotland; Nick McGowan-Lowe, Organiser Scottish Office, National Union of Journalists; and Bailey-Lee Robb, MSYP and Trustee, Scottish Youth Parliament.

A second evidence session also heard from Professor Kevin Dunion, Honorary Professor in the School of Law and Executive Director of the Centre of Freedom of Information, University of Dundee; Dr Karen McCullagh, Lecturer in Law and Course Director, LLM Media Law, Policy and Practice, UEA Law School, University of East Anglia; Professor Colin Reid, Professor of Environmental Law, University of Dundee; Alistair Sloan, Solicitor, Inksters Solicitors; Dr Ben Worthy (by video link), Senior Lecturer in Politics at Birkbeck College, University of London.

A further evidence session later this week on 7 November will feature evidence from Police Scotland; NHS Lanarkshie; Angus Council; NHS Greater Glasgow and Clyde; University of Edinburgh; Scottish Courts and Tribunals Service; Aberdeen City Council; Society of Local Authority Lawyers and Administrators in Scotland.

All updates and progress on the PAPLS inquiry on the Freedom of Information (Scotland) Act 2002 can be found at the Scottish Parliament’s website here: Post-legislative Scrutiny : Freedom of Information (Scotland) Act 2002

 

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