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POLICE UNION SECRETS: Transparency petition by whistle-blower ex Police Officer closed by msps as Scottish Government block move to bring Freedom of Information compliance to Scottish Police Federation

12 Jan

Scots Police Fed. keeps secrets. A PETITION calling for Holyrood to recommend Freedom of Information compliance for the Scottish Police Federation (SPF) – has been closed – after the Scottish Government said it would block transparency compliance for the Union which covers all Police Scotland officers.

Petition PE1763 Freedom of Information Legislation (Scottish Police Federation) – submitted by whistleblower & ex-Police Officer Robert Brown – sought to bring the Scottish Police Federation into line with its counterpart – the Police Federation of England & Wales – which has been covered by Freedom of Information legislation since 2017

Legislation in England & Wales states: 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).

The Police Federation of England & Wales FOI website section states the following: “The Police Federation of England and Wales (PFEW) is funded in part by police officers who pay subscriptions from their wages. We are not funded by the public, and we are the only staff association to be subject to Freedom of Information (FoI), which came into effect for the PFEW in April 2017. The Freedom of Information Act (2000) provides public access to relevant information held by public authorities. Should you wish to submit an FoI request, please contact us.”

Given the Police Federation of England & Wales obvious compliance with Freedom of Information legislation, Police Officers in Scotland and others with an interest in policing – an intense area of public interest – would benefit considerably to access to information – from the same level of transparency applied to the Scottish Police Federation – via compliance with the Freedom of Information (Scotland) Act 2002.

Commenting on the petition submitted by ex Police Officer Robert Brown to the Scottish Parliament’s Public Petitions Committee – Brian Whittle MSP said “The petition has real merit, especially given that England and Wales have already gone down the same route

Howeverm a short debate then took place – with the Convener Johann Lamont & Deputy Convener Gail Ross of the Public Petitions Committee backing away from taking the matter further.

The petition to bring equality of transparency for the Scottish Police Federation was then abruptly closed – after Committee members were told the Scottish Government will not bring Freedom of Information accountability to the Scottish Police Federation.

Last year – the powerful and secretive Scottish Police Federation – which acts as a lobbying force for police officers in Scotland and has the power to decide or deny help to Police Officers – saw it’s General Secretary – Police Constable Calum A Steele – found guilty by PoliceScotland in relation to a complaint of online social media abuse against a former senior Police Officer – ‘Inappropriate and offensive’ Police union boss guilty of abusing female former chief in Twitter tirade.

The issue arose from comments made by Calumn Steele in response to criticisms about the appointment of a Chief Constable – Iain Livingstone – who had previously been accused of five allegations of serious sexual assault against a female Police Officer – reported in further detail here: TOP COP SECRETS: Transparency lacking at Police Scotland as spy scandal cops refuse to disclose files on complaints & historical sexual assault case details involving Deputy Chief Constable Iain Livingstone

An earlier probe by Diary of Justice also revealed the Scottish Police Federation received millions of pounds of public cash over the years from the SNP Scottish Government – a full report can be viewed 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

And, days after the Scottish Information Commissioner made an online statement via Twitter that it would recommend the Scottish Police Federation for Freedom of Information compliance – SPF General Secretary Calum Steele asked the Scottish Government to end the £374,000 public cash grant paid each year by Scottish Ministers to the Scottish Police Federation.

A full report on how Daren Fitzhenry – the Scottish Information Commissioner – backed away from promises to recommend FOI compliance for Scottish Police Federation, and evidence submitted by DOJ journalists to the Public Audit and Post Legislative Scrutiny Committee of the Scottish Parliament, is covered in further detail here: 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

As thngs stand at the date of publication – the Scottish Police Federation remain exempt from Freedom of Information legislation – despite the same transparency laws applying to the Police Federation of England & Wales.

Video footage and a transcript report of the Petitions Committee debate on bringing Freedom of Information compliance to the Scottish Police Federation follows:

Scottish Police Federation Freedom of Information petition – Public Petitions Committee 5 Dec 2019

Freedom of Information Legislation (Scottish Police Federation) (PE1763)

The Convener (Johann Lamont, Scottish Labour): The next new petition is PE1763, headed “Make the Scottish Police Federation comply with FOI legislation” and lodged by Robert Brown. The petition calls on the Scottish Parliament to urge the Scottish Government to make the Scottish Police Federation comply with the Freedom of Information (Scotland) Act 2002.

Our briefing explains that freedom of information requirements apply broadly to public authorities such as Governments, councils and health boards. Police Scotland is subject to the requirements of the 2002 act, but the Scottish Police Federation is not. As police officers are prohibited from joining trade unions, the Scottish Police Federation was created as a staff association with responsibility for the welfare and efficiency of police officers. Trade unions are not covered by freedom of information legislation.

It could be argued that the Scottish Police Federation is akin to a trade union and, therefore, should not be covered by freedom of information requirements. However, the Scottish Police Federation was established by legislation; therefore, it could be argued that it has some similarities with public bodies. The Police Federation of England and Wales is required to comply with freedom of information legislation as a result of changes to the law that were made in 2017. The Scottish Government stated in July 2019 that it had no plans to make the Scottish Police Federation subject to freedom of information legislation.

Elaine Smith, who has noted her support for the petition, says:“I have realised that the Scottish Police Federation appear to be totally self-governing and do not conform to the standards set for England and Wales Federations”.

Do members have any comments or suggestions for action?

Brian Whittle (Scottish Conservative & Unionist):The petition has real merit, especially given that England and Wales have already gone down the same route. However, the Scottish Government has indicated that it has no intention of changing its position. Frustrating as it may be to both the petitioner and the committee with regard to investigating the issue, I do not know that there is anything in particular that we can do to push the matter forward, given that we know where the Scottish Government stands.

The Convener: I do not think that trade unions should fall within the remit of, or be caught by, freedom of information legislation. The police are not allowed to have a trade union, and the only way that they can have a staff association is through legislation. Would it be fair if what is, in effect, a trade union for the police fell under different legislation from that which applies to other trade unions?

The SPF is a unique organisation. However, given that I perceive the organisation as a trade union, I do not see why—unless I am arguing that all trade unions should be in the same position—it should be singled out. The police do not have any choice—they are not allowed, under different legislation, to set up a trade union.

Brian Whittle: The whole matter is really interesting following incidents down south, such as the plebgate scenario, that have brought the police there under the auspices of FOI legislation. Again, I go back to the fact that the Scottish Government has been quite firm in saying that it has no intention of moving down that route. I am, therefore, not quite sure what we can do with the petition.

Maurice Corry (Scottish Conservative & Unionist): It is a difficult one. The release of any information under FOI is entirely in the jurisdiction of the body that is being requested to release it, and there may be valid reasons why it cannot be released. There is some sort of parity. Perhaps we should go back and question the Scottish Government, just to double-check that it is still of the same view.

The Convener: The matter was not in the programme for government.

The Government said what it said in July 2019, so we know what the answer is going to be. We would only be deferring our decision on whether we want to explore the matter further. My feeling is that the case has not been made for why the SPF, as a quasi-trade union, should fall within the remit of FOI legislation, unless we are arguing that all trade unions should be subject to FOI—I would argue that they should not be. Why would we be inconsistent? There are particular circumstances that have led to the current position in England and Wales, but my sense is that there is not an issue in Scotland.

Gail Ross (Deputy Convener) (Scottish National Party): I agree. The Government has made it quite clear what its policy is, and that is not going to change. I agree with Brian Whittle—as a committee, we cannot really take the petition forward.

Maurice Corry: I have not said that I disagree with that; I just wanted to play the devil’s advocate, because the petition raises an issue that needs to be given serious thought. I understand the reasons why the SPF was set up.

The Convener: The petition highlights the difference between the circumstances in England and Wales and those in Scotland, and it gives us an opportunity to reflect on the situation. However, my sense is that there is no pressure for such a change in Scotland. It would require broader discussion about how a staff association inside the police should operate if it is not to operate like a trade union, and I do not think the case has been made for such a change.

My sense is that the committee agrees that we should close the petition under rule 15.7 of the standing orders, on the basis that the Scottish Government has confirmed very recently that it has no plans to make the Scottish Police Federation subject to freedom of information legislation.

Do members agree? Members indicated agreement.

Petition documents submitted by the petitioner, ex Police Officer Robert Brown – stated:

Elaine Smith MSP has made many representations on my behalf including writing to the various First Ministers, Justice Ministers, Lord Advocates, Police Complaints Commission, Strathclyde Police Authority, Police Investigation Review Commission, Strathclyde Police Federation and the Scottish Police Federation. Mrs Smith also lodged a number of parliamentary questions on my behalf including seeking clarification on the issue in July 2019 from the Cabinet Secretary for Justice and from the Scottish Parliament Information centre.

The Scottish Police Federation (SPF) is currently not required to comply with The Freedom of Information (Scotland) Act 2002, whereas the Police Federation of England and Wales is required to comply with the Freedom of Information Act 2000.

All UK police forces, except Police Scotland are also required to comply with the Act. In my opinion, the foregoing is an anomaly, given the situation in England and Wales and I would suggest that making the SPF compliant with The Freedom of Information (Scotland) Act 2002 would assist every member of the SPF, every one of the 17,000 police officers in Scotland as well as members of the public who come into contact with the police and who are interested in openness and transparency.

The SPF hold large amounts of information about police officers including financial and medical information, as well as details about criminal and misconduct allegations made against officers. As a result of their position in representing police officers who are subject to investigation, the SPF receive and retain information about members of the public

Neither SPF members, police officers, nor members of the public are able to access this information. The SPF also hold large amounts of information about police officers’
pay, pensions, welfare and how SPF subscriptions are spent and used among other matters which can be accessed by other Federation members, police officers and members of the public, elsewhere in the UK, but not in Scotland.

The current anomaly in my opinion is a bar to any SPF member, police officer, member of the public or other interested party to gain access to information which is readily available to interested parties in other parts of the UK. If Scotland prides itself on openness and transparency then a body which represents many people and holds information on many more should not be allowed to be excluded from this legislation when equivalent bodies in other parts of the UK are not excluded from the equivalent legislation, i.e. The Freedom of Information Act 2000. The Freedom of Information Act 2000 is specific to England and Wales and is therefore not applicable in Scotland. In my opinion, common sense dictates that the same standard should apply across the UK and accordingly this petition is calling for the SPF to be required to comply with the equivalent legislation in Scotland.

A question from Elaine Smith MSP on Freedom of Information compliance for the Scottish Police Federation – was answered by Humza Yousaf – the current Justrice Secretary – on 17 July 2019.

Elaine Smith (Central Scotland) (Scottish Labour): To ask the Scottish Government what its position is on making the Scottish Police Federation compliant with data protection and freedom of information legislation, in line with the Police Federation of England and Wales.

(S5W-24011)

Humza Yousaf: The Freedom of Information (FoI) acts provide for access to information held by public authorities and Trade Unions and Staff Associations are not generally covered by these acts.

The decision to add the Police Federation of England and Wales to FoI legislation was made by the Home Office and there are currently no plans to add the Scottish Police Federation to the Scottish FoI legislation.

Data Protection legislation does apply to the Scottish Police Federation and a link is attached below to their Privacy Statement, which explains how they processes personal data:

A briefing from the Scottish Parliament Information Centre (SPICe) – prepared for the Public Petitions Committee consideration of Petition 1763 – stated:

Background: Freedom of information

Freedom of information legislation allows individuals to request information held by public authorities. Freedom of information is devolved to the Scottish Parliament, so the legislative framework is slightly different between Scotland and England and Wales.

Broadly, freedom of information requirements apply to public authorities, such as governments, councils and health boards. They don’t generally apply to private bodies, although some private bodies carrying out public functions are covered (in relation to their public functions, rather than their wider work).

Police Scotland is subject to the requirements of the Freedom of Information (Scotland) Act 2002.

The Scottish Police Federation is not. The Scottish Police Federation Police officers are prohibited from joining trade unions.

The Scottish Police Federation was created by the Police Act 1 919 as a staff association with responsibility for the welfare and efficiency of police officers.

Trade unions are not covered by freedom of information legislation. They are seen as private bodies representing the interests of members. It could be argued that the Scottish Police Federation is akin to a trade union and therefore should not be covered by freedom of information requirements.

However, the Scottish Police Federation was established by legislation and could be argued to have some similarities with public bodies.

The Police Federation in England and Wales

The Police Federation in England and Wales is required to comply with freedom of information legislation, as a result of changes to the law in 20171.

The then Home Secretary Theresa May argued that this change was necessary to improve transparency and accountability2.

It formed part of a wider reform initiative covering the Police Federation, which had been hit by several scandals. These included the so-called “plebgate” incident, involving allegations that the then UK Government Chief Whip, Andrew Mitchell MP, had called police officers “plebs”.

Data protection legislation

Separately, data protection legislation controls how personal data (covering any information from which a living individual can be identified) can be used.

Individuals have rights to access information that organisations (including private bodies) hold about them personally under data protection legislation. Data protection is reserved to the UK Parliament (and is, at present, mainly controlled at a European Union level).

Freedom of information legislation cannot be used to require the release of information which would identify a living individual, unless this would also be possible under data protection legislation.

This would include information which would identify a police officer (including a police officer who was subject to a complaint) or a member of the public.

Data protection legislation will usually mean that the consent of the person affected would be required before their data can be released.

However, it is possible to release personal data to a third party without consent where it is “reasonable” to do so.

Consideration must be given to the circumstances of the case, including the type of information which would be disclosed. It is also possible for organisations to redact (block out) information which could lead to the identification of a living individual when responding to freedom of information requests.

Scottish Government Action

The Scottish Government has stated, in response to a parliamentary question from July 20193, that it has no plans to make the Scottish Police Federation subject to freedom of information legislation.

Scotland keeps it secrets, meahwhile England & Wales Police Federation is covered by Freedom of Information law:

Access to information Freedom of Information

The Police Federation of England and Wales (PFEW) is funded in part by police officers who pay subscriptions from their wages. We are not funded by the public, and we are the only staff association to be subject to Freedom of Information (FoI), which came into effect for the PFEW in April 2017. Much of the information you may ask for may already be on this website, so please take the time to search for what you need first.

How to ask for information: The Freedom of Information Act (2000) provides public access to relevant information held by public authorities. Should you wish to submit an FoI request, please contact us at foi@polfed.org

The General Data Protection Regulations and the UK Data Protection Act (2018) Subject Access provides a right for the requester to see their own personal data, rather than a right to see copies of documents that contain their personal data. If you wish to submit a SAR, please contact us at dataprotection@polfed.org.

For either of the above, we will have a better chance of finding the information you want if you are as specific as you are able to be and provide us as much detail as possible.

How long will it take to receive the information I want?: This will depend upon nature of the information you have asked for. If you have requested personal information about yourself then we should respond to your request within 1 calendar month from the point at which your request and identity has been verified.

For other requests you have a right to receive the information, or receive a valid refusal, within 20 working days, unless we need clarification.

Do you have an issue or case with the Scottish Police Federation (SPF) or any other information relevant to the SPF you wish to discuss? If so, please contact Diary of Justice with further details via scottishlawreporters@gmail.com.

 

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