Over the past two years it has been my considerable misfortune to have the job of holding North Yorkshire Police up to some sort of scrutiny. I have been hanging on to the baton, largely, for my North Yorks Enquirer colleague, Nigel Ward, who found himself shackled, until recently, by a grotesque and ultimately failed civil harassment claim launched against him by his local police force .
It is a thankless task, made doubly difficult by the complete absence of support from the more conventional oversight bodies such as the Police and Crime Commissioner, the Independent Police Complaints Commission and Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Constabulary.
Add in a tame, under-resourced local and regional press and it emphasises the uphill nature of the work the back-in-harness Nigel and myself carry out.
One of our stock-in-trade tools as journalists is the freedom of information (FOI) request. A device that used expediently can winkle out information to build an exclusive story.
One such request has been finalised recently by NYP and provides further insight into a force completely averse to any form of criticism – most especially from either Nigel or myself – and utterly obsessed with containing damage to its reputation.
The request, quite remarkably, was finalised within the statutory twenty working day period for information requests. But that may have more to do with me taking the chief constable to court over previous FOI failures  than a desire to please an investigative journalist. Particularly one who has already taken them severely to task over the subject matter of the request, which concerns a Sexual Risk Order handed out to York-based, John O’Neill. The questions put to the force sought to add flesh to this article I published on the topic in August, 2016 .
The response from NYP (and a full list of the questions) is now in the public domain and can be viewed in full here . It is characterised, as ever, by defensiveness.
They refuse to name the solicitor(s) acting for the Chief Constable in this high profile matter that for days dominated national newspapers and was a lead story on network television. In the face of this, and the fact that there have been two public hearings in York Magistrates Court, a Section 40 (2) exemption is relied upon by the force (breach of personal data). Which is, of course, now being challenged by way of a review and then, very probably, a complaint to the Information Commissioner’s Office.
The next question concerning the selection process received a vague answer that didn’t really go to the heart of the issue, except to confirm that the selection of barrister Oliver Thorne was not subject to any competitive element. It is true to say that, on any reasonable view, he has not covered himself in glory as counsel in this particular case.
After admitting in their response to the third question that the controversial – and heavily criticised – Sexual Risk Order was drafted by a North Yorkshire Police in-house solicitor, they refuse to name him (or her). It should be noted, however, that the NYP Force Solicitor and Head of Legal Services, Jane Wintermeyer, is also in charge of the Civil Disclosure Unit that is responsible for finalising FOI requests. There appears to be no recognition of the potential conflict of interest in NYP’s response to this particular information request.
The response to the first part of the fourth question takes us into the realms of the far-fetched. A familiar landing place for a number of FOI outcomes from this source. NYP claim that it would take in excess of 18 hours (around two and a half working days) to calculate the amount spent internally on the John O’Neill case. Which begs the question: what sort of financial systems/controls are in place at NYP? The response to the second part of the question also leaves me scratching my head as the total cost externally (presumably the value of Mr Thorne’s fees), up to and including the latest court hearing, was £2284.32. Which seems on the low side for the services of a barrister of thirteen years call from a leading Leeds-based set (KBW).
In their response to the fifth and last question NYP say that the John O’Neill case has never been given an operational name.
The internal review has now been filed with NYP and they have twenty working days to respond . However, their record in this area of operation is not good. I have a number of reviews of information requests that are overdue. The golden rule for NYP plainly being: The more damaging the disclosure might be to the force, the longer finalisation of a request or a review will take.
The next instalment of the saga played out at York Magistrates Court on 22nd September, 2016. An amended Order was handed down by the judge to John O’Neill that listed twelve restrictions. The ‘unpoliceable’ 24 hour notice before sex has gone, as has the restriction on electronic equipment and internet use. Albeit the latter can be monitored by police. However, District Judge Lower remained in no doubt about the risk that O’Neill posed to women.
O’Neill told ITV News, outside the court, that he was considering an appeal against the Order. He claims it breaches his human rights and that he has ‘no chance of forming a relationship’ with the SRO in place.
It has emerged that at least fifty others are presently the subject to a Sexual Risk Order in this country.
 Private Eye: Article published 31st August, 2016 ‘North Yorkshire Boors‘
 Neil Wilby: Article published 10th June, 2016 ‘Chief constable and PCC face court action‘
 Neil Wilby: Article published 22nd August, 2016 ‘Between a rock and a hard place‘
 North Yorkshire Police: FOI response to Neil Wilby (475.2016.17)
 What Do They Know: Audit trail for FOI request 353604-479ad2a5
Page last updated Friday 23rd September, 2016 at 0745hrs
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Picture credit: York Press