Only one Yorkshire police force knows how many unsolved murders amongst their files.

In a departure from past practice, updates to requests made by Neil Wilby, under the Freedom of Information Act, 2000 (‘FOIA’ or ‘The Act’), will, in future, be charted on this website.

Each request or group of requests will occupy a separate page. Previously, a combination of Twitter and the iconic What Do They Know website was used.

Over time, they will form a very useful addition to the portfolio of articles, now extending to well over two hundred, and, hopefully, aid reader engagement and understanding of the work of an investigative journalist – and how some of the more in-depth stories are built.

FOIA requests to public authorities, according to Guidance issued by the Information Commissioner’s Office, should be treated neutrally:

‘We wish to emphasise at this point that the Freedom of Information Act is applicant and motive blind. A disclosure under FOIA, is a disclosure to the public [ie the world at large]. In dealing with a Freedom of Information request there is no provision for the public authority to look at from whom the application has come, the merits of the application or the purpose for which it is to be used.’

This, however, is not always how those same public authorities regard the position. Particularly, the policing bodies and police forces to whom many of the requests from this quarter are made. Apart from treating the statutory regulator with scarcely concealed disdain, they very much play the man, not the request.

Delay and obfuscation then becomes the order of the day as they try to work out if the requested disclosure will cause reputational harm. Oblivious to the concept that, potentially, even more damage is caused by ducking the issues.

In early September, 2021 three separate, but identical, requests were made to the three Yorkshire police forces. North Yorkshire Police (NYP), South Yorkshire Police (SYP) and West Yorkshire Police (WYP). All headed ‘Unsolved murders’.

The requests have a very specific purpose, which will become clear as the process unfolds.

The Act requires that a response be provided PROMPTLY, and in any event, within 20 working days. That is to say, in these cases, the backstop date is on or before 4th October, 2021.

Police forces are also subject to the College of Policing‘s Authorised Professional Practice (APP) on Freedom of Information (read in full here). This is given added significance by APP compliance being part of the College’s Code of Ethics and enshrined in law as the Code is embedded in section 39A of the Police Act, 1996.

Over the past ten years, in upwards of a hundred FOIA requests to eight different police forces, and five high profile policing bodies, it is apparent that many staff working in their information rights teams are either unaware of APP and the Code of Ethics, or do not embrace the need to comply.

Both NYP and WYP acknowledged the requests on the same day as they were submitted. SYP acknowledged five days later and also sought clarification as to whether the instant request could be satisfied by other similar requests made to that force, on the same topic. They were notified on the same day that it couldn’t.

South Yorkshire Police request history

“Please disclose the following information by way of the Freedom of Information Act:

In the period 1st April 1996 until 31st March 2021, please disclose:

1. Number of murders recorded as taking place in South Yorkshire.

2. Number of those murders that are unsolved.

3. The operational codenames of the investigations into the unsolved murders”.

This is the same wording as the requests sent to the other two Yorkshire forces.

On 4th October, 2021, it was necessary to make an internal review request (IRR) as the 20 working day limit for finalisation of the request has expired. This was the IRR request made to South Yorkshire Police, those made to the other two forces are in almost identical terms:

“I am writing to request an internal review of SYP’s handling of my FOI request ‘Unsolved murders in South Yorkshire’.

“The Act requires a public authority to respond PROMPTLY and, in any event, within 20 working days. As such, there is a breach of section 10 and 17 of the Act.

‘The instant request, plainly expressed, presents no administrative burden on either the Civil Disclosure Unit or the relevant business area. It is profoundly disappointing, in those circumstances and in a matter of the highest public interest, that a police force has chosen to break the law rather than disclose the requested information.

“The reviewer is also invited to consider, when deciding whether this applicant is being discriminated against, yet again, because of his vocation, why at least one other FOIA access request was very recently dealt with well within the 20 day limit and submitted more than two weeks after the instant request:

https://www.whatdotheyknow.com/request/9…

“He, or she, may also wish to consider the social media output of South Yorkshire Police where it would seem, to an independent observer, that it is a force that appears to have ample time on its hands for activities other than complying with the law of the land”.

As often happens with police forces dealing with FOIA requests, sensing a problem, they cobble together a hasty, sub-optimal response, refusing disclosure, hoping that a chastened applicant will go away. On 5th October, 2021, the following day, this was received from SYP:

“Section 17 of the Freedom of Information Act 2000 requires South Yorkshire Police, when refusing to provide such information (because the information is exempt), to provide you the applicant with a notice which:

a. states that fact,
b. specifies the exemption in question and
c. states (if that would not otherwise be apparent) why the exemption applies.

“The following exemption applies to the disclosure of the information:

Section 12 – Exemption where cost of compliance exceeds appropriate limit

“Further to the information provided in our Disclosure log reference 20211290 above, I have again approached the Major Incident Review Team (MIRT) for assistance with regards to the ‘unsolved’ part of this request. The question of what is an “unsolved “ murder is also not straightforward. They have confirmed that the explanation in that response remains the same.

“The MIRT they are currently reviewing all cases such as this. The process will take a
number of months to read case files and papers and review. To update the list bringing it up to date would require a full review of each case on the list plus others that may fit the criteria of your request. Until we review each case, we will not know whether further work is required. The case will be described as detected but would still require review. There is no closing report to give a definitive answer. Further the term “undetected” could refer to a suspect found not guilty at court, insufficient evidence, suspect at large, multiple offenders etc.

“In short , the list of cases requiring review does not necessarily equate with the list of cases that we keep for review purposes. Without a full review of every case plus the data on the previously released list dated 2018, it is impossible to locate, retrieve and extract the data to fit the criteria of your request under the 18 hour limit allowed by the FOI Act.

“The Freedom of Information and Data Protection (Appropriate Limit and Fees) Regulations 2004 provide that the cost limit for non-central government public authorities is £450. This must be calculated at the rate of £25 per hour, providing an effective time limit of 18 hours. Guidance from the Information Commissioner to public authorities is that where one part of a request is reasonably estimated to exceed the appropriate limit then the authority is not obliged to consider or comply with the remainder of the request up to the point at which the appropriate limit has been reached. Please note point 30 of the below link:-

https://ico.org.uk/media/for-
organisations/documents/1199/costs_of_compliance_exceeds_appropriate_limit.pdf

“If you are unhappy with the way your request for information has been handled, you can request a review by following the advice contained in the separate notice enclosed with this correspondence.

“If you remain dissatisfied with the handling of your request or complaint, you have a right to appeal to the Information Commissioner”.

In essence, for those not well versed in FOIA complexities, what SYP is saying is that they don’t know how many unsolved murders they have in their operational area and it would take officers more than 18 working hours to find out. In estimating the cost, the ICO in its Guidance, makes clear that only the estimated cost of the following tasks can be considered: establishing if the information is held; locating the information; retrieving the information; and extracting the information.

Estimates don’t have to be precise, but they do have to be “sensible, realistic and supported by cogent evidence” says the ICO.  SYP has signally failed on that score and the force also breached section 16 of the Act by not offering any assistance as to how the request could, in their view, be brought below the cost limit. If one allows, as the ICO has previously suggested in similar requests, one minute per paper file to establish whether a murder is solved, or unsolved, and to note its operational code name, that produces a number of files – over 1,000 – far in excess of the total number of murders in the period. 

But the overarching impressions left by the SYP response are ones of inertia, poor record keeping, laziness, or, of course, all three.

It has been established separately, by Neil Wilby, that all the information requested would be accessible either by way of the force’s legacy crime management system (CMS) or the more up-to-date CONNECT system introduced in 2016. In that light, the refusal to disclose the information becomes even more bizarre. It also suggests that SYP is deliberately obstructing this request and concealing information. 

On 4th November, 2021 a second internal review request was made:

“I am writing to request a second internal review of South Yorkshire Police’s handling of my FOI request ‘Unsolved murders’. The first internal review has not received a response, even though the 20 working day limit has been exceeded.

“The second internal review request concerns the substantive response to the original information request in which you rely on a section 12 exemption to refuse disclosure.

“Given the history between this applicant and SYP, and the protracted way in which information has had to be squeezed out, there is always a gnawing and residual suspicion regarding the veracity of the responses to requests from this quarter.

“The instant access request is no different: It is inconceivable, to this investigative journalist at least, that one of the seven metropolitan police forces in England and Wales does not know and cannot readily access how many unsolved murders it has on its books within the requested time windows.

“For example, if the Home Secretary sent out a circular to those same forces to answer a question from another MP or the Home Affairs Select Committee, what would South Yorkshire Police say? ‘We don’t know’.

“There would be a huge public outcry and public confidence in the police service would, not unnaturally, plummet further. There would also be calls for the Chief Constable and the head of your major inquiry team to resign.

“You are, accordingly and most respectfully, asked to start afresh with this request as section 45 guides public authorities to do. It is also respectfully requested that you draw it to the personal attention of the two senior officers referred to in the preceding paragraph as a ‘heads up’, as I intend to write to the Home Secretary and the Chair of the HASC to express my concern as to the ramifications for public safety in South Yorkshire arising from the force’s dangerously weak output from this request.

“That same public deserve much better as killers walk free amongst them”.

The first internal review request received a lengthy response on 18th November, 2021 which asserted that the first response to the information request was, in fact, within time. A now moot point upon which SYP and Neil Wilby have agreed to disagree. It is simply not proportionate for a journalist to pursue it: If SYP do not understand, or have no inclination to take account of the requirement to respond to information requests PROMPTLY, then no amount of complaining is going to change that ‘we are right and you are wrong’ mentality that pervades this police force. 

Within that first IRR response, from decision maker Lucy Moore, was a promise to deliver a response to the much more crucial second IRR: “A further review will be forthcoming with regards to the content of the response.  This was logged on 4th November and will be responded to by 1st December under reference number -20212327.  I will be conducting this
review and will endeavour to respond by the end of next week [26th November, 2021]”.

Both those dates have been and gone, of course, and still no response has been forthcoming to the second IRR, despite those unsolicited and unequivocal undertakings, made publicly by an officer engaged with SYP. There has been no explanation or apology for the missed deadlines, either. Respect and courtesy do not come naturally to SYP officers, especially when their backs are, metaphorically, to the wall.

It is, overall, a troubling matrix in which a police force is prepared to break the law and lie, so casually, on a topic as serious as this one.

A decision on whether Neil Wilby submits a section 50 complaint to the Information Commissioner’s Office is stayed until a response is received to communications sent to the Home Secretary and the Home Affairs Select Committee. But all rights in this regard have, of course, been reserved.

North Yorkshire Police request history

NYP is a problem force as far as freedom of information requests is concerned and has been for at least 10 years (read more here). It also has a troubling culture of secrecy, obfuscation and denial. As far as such requests, made by Neil Wilby, are concerned the starting point, almost always for NYP, is to frustrate disclosure and arrange reasons, however flimsy, around a pre-formed decision.

On 5th September, 2021 this request was made:

Please disclose the following information by way of the Freedom of Information Act:

In the period 1st April 1996 until 31st March 2021, please disclose:

1. Number of murders recorded as taking place in North Yorkshire.

2. Number of those murders that are unsolved.

The following day a third question was added:

3. The operational codenames of the investigations into the unsolved murders.

On 2nd October, 2021 it was necessary to make an internal review request in these terms:

“The Act requires a public authority to respond PROMPTLY and, in any event, within 20 working days. As such, there is a breach of section 10 and 17 of the Act.

“The instant request, plainly expressed, presents no administrative burden on either the Civil Disclosure Unit or the relevant business area.

“The reviewer is also invited to consider, when deciding whether this applicant is being discriminated against, yet again, because of his vocation, why at least one other FOIA access request was very recently dealt with well within the 20 day limit:

https://www.whatdotheyknow.com/request/r…

“He or she may also wish to consider the social media output of North Yorkshire Police where it would seem, to an independent observer, that it is a force that appears to have ample time on its hands for activities other than complying with the law of the land”.

The IRR was acknowledged and recorded by NYP on 5th October, 2021. To date, and over two months later, no response to that IRR has been provided. That is not only in breach of ICO Guidance, it places the NYP officers concerned in this request in breach of both the College of Policing’s Code of Ethics and the College’s Authorised Professional Practice, both embedded in section 39A of the Police Act, 1996.

On 27th October, 2021 a substantive response to the information request was received from Elisha Marsay, a Legal Disclosure Officer with NYP, in these terms:

Extent of Searches to Locate Information 
Following receipt of your request searches were  conducted within North Yorkshire Police to locate relevant information.   

Decision 
“I  am  not  obliged  to  provide  you  with  a  response  to  your  request  pursuant  to  Section  12(1)  of  the Freedom of Information Act 2000 (the Act). 

“Please note that when one part of your request falls under Section 12,  we are not obliged to review the rest of the questions and the whole request is therefore exempt. 

“Section 12(1) applies to your request as the cost of complying with your request is above the amount to  which we  are  legally  required  to  respond  i.e.  the cost  of  identifying and  retrieving  any  relevant information exceeds the ‘appropriate level’ as stated in the Freedom of Information (Appropriate Limit and Fees) Regulations 2004. 

“Due  to  the  nature  of  our  recording  systems  the  information  requested,  if  held,  is  not in an  easily retrievable format. The information requested is not centrally recorded and 
therefore to locate the requested details surrounding all reported murders between 1996 and 2021, a manual read would be required of all electronic and paper records relating to homicide. 

“This would involve reading through over hundreds of reports, which would exceed the time limit allowed under the Act. 

“Pursuant to Section 16 of the Act I am required to offer you advice and assistance with regarding to refining your request to within the ‘appropriate limit’ (time/cost limit).
Some of the requested information could be provided if the date parameters were amended
to obtain information between 2008 and 2021 to allow searches to be carried out electronically.

“If you wish to discuss this please do not hesitate to contact me.

“Please note that systems used for recording information are not generic, nor are the procedures used locally in capturing the data.

“It should be noted therefore that this force’s response to your questions should not be used
for comparison purposes with any other responses you may receive”.

The section 16 offer was not taken up by Neil Wilby whom, instead, exercised his right to challenge the NYP finalisation by way of a complaint to the Information Commissioner’s Office.  Given the rural and largely crime-free nature of much of the force’s operational area, and the consequent low number of murders, solved and unsolved, it is simply inconceivable that 18 hours of officer time would be needed to go through all the murder case files over the past 25 years and disclose the requested information to Neil Wilby. 

As the ICO rarely support complainants in seeking to overturn section 12 exemptions relied upon by public authorities this is a freedom of information request that will, very likely and ultimately, be heard before an information rights tribunal. Assuming, of course, there has not been any intervention by either the Home Secretary or the Home Affairs Select Committee in the intervening period. 

West Yorkshire Police request history

To give parity with the request to the other two Yorkshire forces one was made to WYP in identical terms on 6th September, 2021

Please disclose the following information by way of the Freedom of Information Act:

In the period 1st April 1996 until 31st March 2021, please disclose:

1. Number of murders recorded as taking place in West Yorkshire.

2. Number of those murders that are unsolved.

3. The operational codenames of the investigations into the unsolved murders.

It required, on 4th October, 2021, an almost identical internal review request to be made:

“The Act requires a public authority to respond PROMPTLY and, in any event, within 20 working days. As such, there is a breach of section 10 and 17 of the Act.

“The instant request, plainly expressed, presents no administrative burden on either the Civil Disclosure Unit or the relevant business area. It is profoundly disappointing, in those circumstances and in a matter of the highest public interest, that a police force has chosen to break the law rather than disclose the requested information.

“The reviewer is also invited to consider, when deciding whether this applicant is being discriminated against, yet again, because of his vocation, why at least one other FOIA access request was very recently dealt with well within the 20 day limit and submitted more than a week after the instant request:

https://www.whatdotheyknow.com/request/n…

“He or she may also wish to consider the social media output of West Yorkshire Police where it would seem, to an independent observer, that it is a force that appears to have ample time on its hands for activities other than complying with the law of the land”.

The IRR was acknowledged the following day and a finalisation to the review provided on 1st November, 2021 in these terms:

“Having reviewed your request, I note this was logged on our systems 06/09/21 and therefore due a response no later than 04/10/21 as stipulated within the Act.  

“I can confirm that the disclosure officer working on this response has been liaising with the 
relevant departments in order to retrieve the relevant information to meet the requirements of your request. This has unfortunately led to a delay in the process;  therefore, your internal 
review complaint is upheld. 

“Please accept our apologies in the delay with your request. A response wil  be issued to 
yourself as soon as possible”.  

A terse exchange followed between Neil Wilby, an increasingly frustrated applicant, and the Information Management Department at WYP.

“Thank you for the response to my internal review request.

“It is noted that the complaints have been upheld.

“In order to preserve further rights, a section 50 complaint will be lodged with the Information Commissioner’s Office during the course of this week.

“Most, if not all, of my fellow What Do They Know users and readers would find it incredible that the fourth largest police force in England and Wales still does not know, after almost nine weeks, how many unsolved murders are on it books.

“With all due respect, the following submission is made: How do WYP possibly expect to catch the perpetrators in such circumstances? Or, is it the case that WYP is set on a course to continue to vex, annoy and harass a journalist, following his vocation, by simply stalling the response?”

A reply came back from Disclosure Officer,  Alix Whitfield-Jones, who plainly was not at all happy with that submission. He says:

“In accordance with the Freedom of Information Act, when an authority is
considering whether a request is valid under Section 8(1) a request must
be (a) in writing; (b) state the name of the applicant and an address for
correspondence, and (c) describe the information requested.

“In this case your request complies with Section 1(a) and (b) as the
request is in writing and a name and contact details have been provided,
however, the body of the narrative is not valid and does not comply with
Section 8(1)(c). Your request is asking for a view on a hypothetical
situation which does not consist of recorded information. As such, this
has not been recorded as a request for information”.

The response to that missive was uncompromising and raised the stakes yet higher:

“Forgive me for pointing this out, but WYP have time to engage in this class of nonsense but not enough time, after nine weeks, and an upheld IRR, to provide a meaningful response to what is, taken at its face, a straightforward disclosure request?

“What Do They Know (WDTK) is a public forum and, upon it, both as a journalist and information rights practitioner, I have a large following; together with an even larger following on social media to where my posts on WDTK are frequently shared.

“The submissions I made, respectfully, which should have been obvious to any independent reader, were relevant commentary and NOT a request for access for further disclosure”.

Just three days later, WYP disclosed the most important part of the request but the childishness and tendency to vex and annoy plainly persists:

1. Number of murder offences recorded = 773

2. Number of unsolved murders = 61

Notes:
Figures represent the number of crimes recorded during the period which:
– were not subsequently cancelled
– were classified as Murder
Number of those offences ongoing as at 09/09/2021
These figures may be subject to further investigation, reclassification and cancelling and will therefore change over time

Crime classifications based on Home Office Counting Rules for Recorded Crime
https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/counting-rules-for-recorded-crime

3. Please note that some Operation Names are already available in the public domain [two examples from local newspaper reports were given], however, West Yorkshire Police Service (sic) can neither confirm nor deny, that it holds any further information, as the duty in s1(1)(a) of the Freedom of Information Act 2000  does not apply. By virtue of the following exemptions:

Section 30(3) Investigations and proceedings conducted by a public authority
Section 31(3) Law Enforcement
Section 40(5) Personal Information 

The final words on this troubled request, to obtain information that one might very fairly think should be available, within seconds, at the click of a mouse button went to Neil Wilby:

“Thank you for the belated response earlier today and the information provided regarding questions 1 and 2.

“With regard to the response to question 3, although I profoundly disagree with the exemptions relied upon and the startlingly deficient harm test and balancing exercises undertaken, to the extent they border, in my respectful submission, on the ludicrous or desperate, it is simply not proportionate to draw further on precious public funds and resources, and pursue this matter further.

“However, I do hope that WYP, as an organisation, will draw learning from this unfortunate encounter, and the access request from this same applicant that preceded it, concerning Operation Platinum. During their currency, public confidence both in your force, and the wider police service, has had a little more squeezed from it”.

Summary and conclusions

In an exercise now over three months old, conducted by an experienced journalist/ information rights practitioner, on a matter of very substantial public interest, only one police force in the United Kingdom’s largest and most important County can say how many murder cases on their patch are presently unsolved.

A worrying and wholly unsatisfactory matter now raised, as indicated to SYP on 18th November, 2021 with both the Home Secretary and the Chair of the Home Affairs Select Committee. 

The only bright spot being the detection rate by West Yorkshire Police being pleasingly high. 

Updates

Updates will be posted as and when further responses are received from either of the two police forces or the Information Commissioner’s Office. There is currently a delay of almost twelve months before the ICO addresses complaints and then up to a further six months before a decision is made. A situation the more cynical public authorities, notably North Yorkshire Police, ruthlessly exploit.

Page last updated: Thursday 9th December, 2021 at 1340 hours

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

Picture credit:  South Yorkshire Police

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Published by Neil Wilby

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

One thought on “Only one Yorkshire police force knows how many unsolved murders amongst their files.

  1. With regards to “Section 40(5) Personal Information only applies to the names/personal information of the living” used by West Yorkshire Police.

    According to the above a West Yorkshire Police refused to release in response to your FOI request the operational codenames of murder investigations (which presumably could in some cases also lead to the name of the person murdered through jigsaw identification) but only the legal basis that the person the police force is conducting a murder investigation is not dead but still living?

    Why would a police force conduct a murder investigation into the death of someone that hadn’t happened or someone who is still alive? Wouldn’t that be a waste of police time and public resources?

    I think the only answer to this is that in West Yorkshire, if West Yorkshire Police investigate a person’s murder then like Schrödinger’s cat, the person murdered is dead for the purposes of the murder investigation, but at the very same time alive for the purposes of a freedom of information request.

    To me, this doesn’t make much sense.

    But then it seems a lot of UK police forces seem somewhat divorced from reality and prefer to exist in a world of delusional fantasies – a world where provable facts (such as whether a person is dead or alive) have no importance compared to the perceived reality of the world through the lens of the people that work for that police force.

    Like

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