Your Cheque Is In The Post

Back in the day, when internet banking was still a pipe dream, and PPI was being mis-sold on an industrial scale, a cheque book was the essential financial accessory. It that golden era, television and radio comedians cheerily punted the world’s biggest lie as “your cheque is in the post“.

A nod to the unscrupulous businessman, or associate, who made repeated false promises to avoid settling debts.

There was competition for the number one slot, of a rather more crude genre, it must be said, but we will not dwell on that version here.

More recently, it has, arguably, been supplanted by this country’s biggest police force saying when they are going to finalise an information request. A stand-up comedian may not know that, but as an investigative journalist I certainly do.

The Metropolitan Police Service (“the Met”), in those same days that cheque books were ubiquitous, or Scotland Yard, as they were affectionately known, was synonymous with excellence and pride in the job. Renowed the world over.

Sadly, that no longer applies. Control of the streets of London has been given over to feral gangs [1] and the obsession with diversity, and political correctness, has led to almost 1,000 officers being deployed to deal, mostly, with hurt feelings, under the guise of ‘hate crime’ [2]. The force is also constantly beset by corruption and ‘cover-up’ scandals – and widespread negative press comment over multi-million pound, failed, largely pointless, publicity-rich, evidence-light investigations. Operations Elevedon and Midland being two that immediately spring to mind.

Meanwhile, their Freedom of Information Unit, who have a LEGAL [3], and ethical [4], obligation to respond to requests in a timely manner, according to information supplied by a member of that particular team, is starved of resources and coping with a doubled workload. Each disclosure officer is currently dealing with up to 30 requests, rather than the more usual 15.

On 23rd July, 2018 I made a request for information to the Met about a ‘peer review’ they had conducted into the internal affairs department of another police force [5]. It is a matter of significant public interest as there is well grounded suspicion that serious police wrongdoing may be uncovered by my journalistic investigation.

The first response to a request for disclosure, by the Met, was a lie. They said they had NO information about the peer review.

An appeal was submitted as I knew, by reference to other documents held from other sources, that I was being ‘put away’ by the police. A common occurence, regrettably, across the four police forces with which I am regularly involved (the three in Yorkshire and neighbouring Greater Manchester). They deeply resent journalists shining light into their dark corners.

The complaint was upheld by the Met, and within the decision narratrive it was claimed that the lie was ‘a mistake’. Human error. We agreed to disagree. A wise course, as events have unfolded.

Having, eventually, established that the Met DID hold disclosable information pertaining the vexed subject matter, a supplemental request was made shortly afterwards, on 23rd August, 2018.

This second request has produced a further series of lies that seriously undermine confidence in not just the Met, but the wider police service. In the ensuing three months, it has necessitated the involvement of the Independent Office of Police Conduct (IOPC), the National Police Chiefs Council (NPCC) and the Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO).

On 3rd September, 2018 a note was received from Peter Deja, a Support Officer in the Metropolitan Police Service’s Freedom of Information Triage Team, stating the second information request was being treated as an internal review request of the first. Corrected, it must be said, later that day by the same officer. But symptomatic of a mistake-riddled approach through every stage of this process. Right up to the present day.

No quality assurance, no supervision, no pride in the job. A disease that afflicts so much of the visible parts of the police service that is open to journalists (FOI requests, press requests, data subject requests, police complaints, misconduct hearings, civil and criminal court proceedings, to name the most obvious).

The next communication from the Met, on 20th September, 2018, carried a surprise to an experienced FOI practitioner. Now travelling with ‘case reference: 2018090000548’ as its handle, another Information Manager, Suzanne Mason, says the Met are seeking an extension of time for response to the request: “For your information we are considering the following exemption: Section 31 – Law Enforcement. I can now advise you that the amended date for a response is 20th October 2018”.

It drew this reply from me, by way of a complaint submitted to the Met on 25th September, 2018 (paras 1, 2, 3, 8 and 9 are omitted to spare the reader any further tedium, mostly concerning sections 10 and 17 of the Act):

“5. The exemption upon which MPS seeks to rely (section 31) appears to be a continuation of that propensity to deceive. Again, it is reference to the College of Policing’s Guidance that adds force to the point that this exemption is most unlikely to apply in this case: [Police] Forces frequently invite operational counterparts and specialists from neighbouring forces to evaluate their operational performance. Peer reviews support the principle of police interoperability, continuous improvement and information sharing. They do NOT relate to those matters set out in either subsection (1) and (2) of section 31 of the Act, relating to Law Enforcement.

6. It is further noted that the intended reliance on section 31 is completely absent of analysis, insofar as whether subsection(s) 1 and/or 2 may be engaged. It, further, does not analyse which parts of the request to which exemption from disclosure may be sought. On any reasonable, independent view it could not, conceivably, apply to questions 1, 2 and 4 [of the information request].

7. Taking paras 5 and 6 together, the inescapable conclusion is that MPS has taken a decision to engage in further deceit, obfuscation in order to frustrate this request for disclosure. It is also respectfully submitted that this is part of a course of conduct to vex, annoy and harass a journalist in legitimate pursuit of his vocation”.

Strong words. But entirely justified, in all the circumstances.

Tension between requester and public authority is now palpable.

The request is also, by now, attracting considerable attention, and comment, on the Twitter social media platform. The Times, meanwhile, contacted the author of this piece and said they wanted to run the story around my investigation, once complete.

This latest complaint to the Met drew a partial, and largely unsatisfactory, response, via a Mr or Ms S Stroud, on 8th October, 2018:

“For your information, I have made enquiries with the Information Manager (IM) with responsibility for your request.  She is hopeful that a response will be with you SHORTLY [emphasis added].  I have asked the IM to complete your request as a matter of URGENCY [emphasis added].”

“As a response to your request is currently outstanding, I am unable to complete a full internal review in relation to your request.  However, should you be dissatisfied with the MPS response to your request when you receive it, you may request an internal review in relation to that
decision”.

It did go on to say that the Section 31 exemption was still relied upon, despite not answering a single point raised in the complaint which set out, in plain terms, that such an exemption from releasing the information requested has no basis in fact, or law. It was, on all the evidence, a device being used by the Met simply to delay the inevitable disclosure, that is now almost certain, one way or another, to damage senior officer reputations in two very large police forces. This is apparent because of disclosures I have now obtained, after a battle with Greater Manchester Police, who were the subject of the Peer Review conducted by the Met.

A re-appearance is then made by the Met’s Suzanne Mason. On 20th October, 2018 she writes: “Please accept my sincere apologies for the lengthy delay in responding. I am still awaiting a response [she does not identify from whom], but I have sent a chaser and hope to be able to get back to you within the next few days. Thanking you for your patience in the matter”.

No mention is made, by Ms Mason, of the communication from the Met, on 8th October, saying the finalisation of the request, and the accompanying disclosure of the information, was being dealt with ‘urgently‘ and would be finalised ‘shortly‘. Her remark concerning patience was also highly assumptive, and not at all helpful, in the circumstances.

In a further response from the Met on 24th October, 2018, Ms Mason has subsequently ignored the plea to identify those officers – and failed to even address the status of the request. “Within a few days” was plainly more than 4 (it is now 36 and counting). “Urgently” and “Shortly” in Met-speak now extends, astonishingly, to 48 days and counting.

It was now clear that, without the intervention of third parties, the Met has no intention of complying with the law, and thus disclosing the requested information. In the meantime, the lies continue spewing out.

On 26th October, 2018 the matter was reported to the ICO. Apart from an auto-response, that has drawn no reaction, whatsoever, from the toothless ‘watchdog’.

Just four days later, came another lie from the Met. On this occasion, the information manager had, incredibly, redacted her name from the response:

“Enquiries in relation to your request are ongoing and a response will be
provided to you as soon as possible [Emphasis added]. The Information Manager with responsibility for your request will endeavour to provide you with a response on or before 13th November, 2018 [Emphasis added].

“As a response to your request is currently outstanding, I am unable to
complete a full internal review in relation to your request. However,
should you be dissatisfied with the MPS response to your request, you may
request an internal review in relation to the decision.

“I would like to take this opportunity to apologise on behalf of the MPS
for the delay in responding to your Freedom of Information Act request.
The progress of your request will continue to be monitored.”

It matters little in a wider context, apart from yet another small measure of institutional incompetence, but for the second time, and by two different information managers, my surname had been spelt ‘Wilbey‘, not Wilby.

A further complaint was made. Within it, I again asked for the names of the directing minds responsible for delaying the request. The chief suspects being Deputy Assistant Commissioner, Fiona Taylor and Superintendent, Gary Randall. Both officers being at the centre of the investigation of which this request forms part.

A response came from Yvette Taylor, again, on the same day upon which the finalisation was promised, 13th November, 2018. But there was more bad news and Metropolitan Police lies in the system.

“As advised to you in my email dated 30th October, 2018, your complaint with respect to timeliness of responding to you was upheld.

“You have questioned the reasons for the delay in responding to you.

“The delay cannot be attributed to one specific individual.  Unfortunately,
as advised by Ms Mason, the current level of FOIA requests is extremely
high.

“Due to the nature of FOIA requests, it is impossible to regulate the
number of requests that a public authority receives. For example, there
was a 42% increase in FOIA requests for October 2018. A manageable
caseload for a FOIA Information Manger is between 15 and 20 requests.

“Most Information Managers currently have a case load in the region of 30
requests. This is being managed by some Information Managers working
additional hours to clear overdue requests.”

Later the same day, a second communication was received from the Met, this time from Suzanne Mason:

“Please accept my sincere apologies once again for the continued delay in
responding to your request for information.

“I have today received some information which I need to review and seek
approval from the business unit before responding to you and I am hopeful
that we will be able to do so early next week”.

The business unit referred to is, believe it or not, the Met’s Directorate of Professional Standards, for which the aforementioned DAC Fiona Taylor has, I am given to understand, senior command portfolio responsibilty. Supt Randall is also a security-cleared, key member of the special investigations team in that same unit.

No mention is made by Ms Mason of the latest failed deadline, and, of course, ‘early next week’ (19th or 20th November, 2018 one might assume) has been and gone. Another round of deceit, with no explanation, or apology for the missing finalisation of the request.

A new kid on the Met block emerged on 29th November, 2018 when disclosure lawyer, Damion Baird, sent a message to the effect that he had now taken over the file from Ms Mason and the finalisation would be sent ‘shortly’.

Two cordial, informative telephone calls between Mr Baird and Neil Wilby followed in which it was revealed that the lawyer had completed all his work on the request and sent it to the ‘business area’, the Directorate of Professional Standards (DPS), for quality assurance on 30th November, 2018.

Subsequently, he sent a reminder email on 6th December, 2018 and reminded himself that an enforcement notice from the information Commissioner expired on 11th December, 2018. He confidently anticipated a full response to the request before then.

At 6.30pm on 11th December Mr Baird sent an apology and a message saying there would be a further ‘short delay’. But with no date given for a substantive response.

So, is the world’s biggest lie now the Metropolitan Police Service saying “Your information request is in the post”? Judge for yourself, dear reader.

8th October, 2018       – Shortly, matter dealt with urgency.

20th October, 2018    – Chaser, within a few days

24th October, 2018     – Staff shortages

30th October, 2018     – Response on or before 13th November, 2018

13th November, 2018 – Early next week

29th November, 2018 – Shortly

12th November, 2018 – Short delay

The press office at the Metropolitan Police Service, when first approached for comment on 25th November, 2018 responded:

You seem to have requested a response from our FoI team and have referenced a response which suggests you will have it soon.

The FoI team are very busy, with a wide range of queries, so sometimes you have to wait“.

They later refused to answer the following two specific questions:

1. Why does MPS consider the law (Freedom of Information Act, 2000) does not apply to them. Parliament made no provision, within the Act, for policing bodies to do as they please.

2. Why has MPS consistently engaged itself in deceit over this request at a significant cost to public confidence in the wider police service?

To that was added: It would be highly preferable if DAC Fiona Taylor was apprised and a response provided that was attributable to her. With senior rank, comes ownership of issues.

The enquiries, perfectly reasonably presented, were not drawn to the attention of DAC Taylor, as specifically requested. Or any explanation provided as to why.
Indeed, it has now been learned that Ms Taylor sensationally quit the Met just days before this information request was submitted, in July, 2018. She has now taken a sideways move to troubled Police Scotland.
A fact that any of the Met’s disclosure, legal or press officers has omitted to mention in a significant number of communications.
In the light of this response, the press officer was informed that an approach will be made directly to her. That has now been done, via the Police Scotland press office.
The press officer email exchange in November was signed off thus: ‘It would be a kindness to describe your response as ‘sub-optimal’. They were approached again for comment on 11th December, 2018.
Page last updated Tuesday 11th December, 2018 at 2100hrs

 

[1] The Guardian: ‘Streets of Fear’

[2] The Mail on Sunday:  ‘Criminal that Met Police is giving up on burglars’

[3] Freedom of Information Act, 2000: Sections 1, 10 and 17

[4] College of Policing: Authorised Professional Practice

[5] What Do They Know: Information request made by Neil Wilby

Page last updated on Sunday 23rd November, 2018 at 0650hrs

Picture credit: The Guardian Media Group

Corrections: Please let me know if there is a mistake in this article. I will endeavour to correct it as soon as possible.

Right of reply: If you are mentioned in this article and disagree with it, please let me have your comments. Provided your response is not defamatory it will be added to the article.

© Neil Wilby 2015-2018. Unauthorised use, or reproduction, of the material contained in this article, without permission from the author, is strictly prohibited. Extracts from, and links to, the article (or blog) may be used, provided that credit is given to Neil Wilby, with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

Author: Neil Wilby

Former Johnston Press area managing director. Justice campaigner. Freelance investigative journalist.

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