An important part of an investigative journalist’s armoury is the Freedom of Information Act, 2000. The essential principle being that public authorities, unless they can provide a good, and lawful, reason not to do so, must disclose information, upon request, by a member of the public. Or, indeed, a reporter chasing down an ‘exclusive’.
‘Public authorities’ includes police forces and policing bodies. With only one or two notable exceptions the Act is routinely abused by the latter two.
For emphasis that is repeated, in terms: Law enforcement agencies disregard the dictates of Parliament and gang together, under the auspices of the National Police Chiefs Council, no less, to do so.
Unchallenged, it has to be said, by the very MP’s who are the country’s legislators. Or, by Police and Crime Commissioners (PCC’s) who are elected to provide oversight to chief constables. The latter may be connected to the fact that some PCC’s are also serial, and serious, FOI offenders. Aided and abetted by a woefully weak statutory regulator, the Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) and an even less efficient ‘inn of last resort’, the General Regulatory Chamber, First Tier Tribunal.
In short, policing bodies know, all too well, that there is no easy remedy if they set out to frustrate a journalist in his, or her, quest for disclosure of documents that may underpin a vital public interest exposé, or search for the truth in, for example, the case of a miscarriage of justice.
One glaring, and increasingly high profile example of police forces abusing the Act, is the matter of a ‘peer review’ that was allegedly undertaken by the Metropolitan Police Service (the Met) on behalf of the chief constable of Greater Manchester Police (GMP).
A peer review is a process, guided by the College of Policing, by which police forces frequently invite counterparts, and specialists, from neighbouring constabularies to evaluate their operational performance. Peer reviews, it is said, completely absent of evidence, support the principle of police interoperability, continuous improvement and information sharing.
Management-speak aside, a peer review is also a soft alternative to a robust, thorough investigation of wrongdoing in which ‘bad apples’ in police forces are pulled from the barrel and cast aside.
Shortly after his appointment as chief of the Manchester force, Ian Hopkins, trumpeted loudly about his intention to invite the Met to look into his troubled Professional Standards Board (PSB), which had been dogged by scandal after scandal over the preceding three years, or so.
He told the Manchester Evening News: “I have asked for a peer review, by another force, to look at how the Professional Standards Branch and Counter Corruption Unit operate – and to see if there is any learning from other parts of the country about the way we operate that maybe we can be doing differently.”
Both departments had been inspected by Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Constabulary (HMIC) ‘about three times’ in the last few years and concluded they are ‘very good’, the chief added. It is relevant to point out that HMIC is another policing body that abuses the Act and, quite separately, there is considerable doubt, across a much wider spectrum, as to the effectiveness and efficiency of their inspections. The Chief Inspector of Constabulary, Sir Thomas Winsor, is deeply disrespected, and subjected to childish ridicule, by very many serving, and retired, police officers across the country. If the general public was more widely aware of the concerns over the Queen’s representative there would be a huge outcry.
Hopkins went on to defend the work of the department – feared and loathed by some inside GMP, it is said – and added: “What we are increasingly seeing is that, rather than people accounting for their own actions, they are attacking those people who are told to do that investigation.”
The chief constable pointed to ‘a number of individuals who are disgruntled and have raised issues’. He was, no doubt, referring to such as ex-Superintendent John Buttress, whom, on many independent views, was the subject of what amounted to a crudely executed, disproportionately pursued ‘witch-hunt’ by GMP – and Paul Bailey, the very well-respected former Chair of the National Black Police Association, who was a constant thorn in the side of the command team in GMP.
“We want to make sure, if we get things wrong, or if people have behaved badly, or broken the law, then they are held to account for it,” the chief constable concluded.
Fine words but the reality is very, very different, as anyone close to GMP knows.
So, put shortly, the view advanced by Hopkins was that GMP’s PSB was functioning well, there was not really a problem – and he would ask another police force to carry out a review to prove his point. Which is, in terms, that the issue is confined to disgruntled officers making a lot of white noise.
The peer review, Hopkins said, would last SIX WEEKS. Note that carefully. But, to some, that might have seemed short enough, given the nature and scale of the corruption allegations made against GMP’s troubled PSB.
That was the last public pronouncement made by Hopkins and there has been no visible follow up by the local newspaper, or its crime reporter, John Scheerhout. Whom a number of GMP’s critics perceive to be too close to the force to effectively perform the “social watchdog” role of a journalist. Underpinned, at least in part, by the appearance of a string of stories in The Times and Sunday Times, sourced by the country’s most visible, and effective, police whistleblower, ex-GMP Superintendent Pete Jackson.
This series of front page splashes, and double page spreads, led to a leader being run by the country’s ‘newspaper of record’, in February 2018, calling for a public inquiry into the many high profile failings of Greater Manchester Police. Since then, there has been another two pieces run by The Times, in June 2018, the second of which, effectively, calls out Hopkins for a dishonest response to the first. Times reporter, Fiona Hamilton, pulled no punches as she ripped into the cornered chief constable.
It is a quite extraordinary state of affairs. In both cases the source was, again, Pete Jackson. Manchester’s best detective, and Head of the Major Enquiry Team, when he retired from the force.
GMP has also been under constant attack by the BBC, who have produced a number of radio and television programmes featuring alleged wrongdoing by the force. Inside Out producer, Neil Morrow, is a strong, articulate, well-reasoned critic of the running of the force, particularly on social media. ITV’s award-winning presenter, Matt O’Donoghue, is another. Having worked at close quarters with the bereaved families of Jordon Begley and Anthony Grainger, Matt knows a great deal more than most about the inner workings, and ‘cover-up’ mentality, of GMP.
A piece highlighting the shenanigans over this peer review was due to appear in Private Eye on Wednesday 7th November, 2018. That has been written by another highly respected journalist, presenter and producer, Mark Gregory. It may yet appear, of course. Even in a modified form, once the final piece of police disclosure fits into this increasingly complex jigsaw.
Returning to the peer review, the significance of which will unfold, there has been a good deal of activity via freedom of information requests: The first on this topic was made in August, 2016 by William Crow. The response was “GMP can confirm that a peer review was undertaken by the MPS and the report is currently being drafted by them, with the lead being Supt Gary Randall. The report will include the terms of reference and findings, and will be presented to GMP when completed”. It was supplemented, following a complaint, by this explanation: “Apologies – I did not think we held this information. It has now been confirmed to me that the review took place on the 9th-10th May 2016”.
That disclosure was important. It revealed, taken at its face, that a six week review had taken just TWO DAYS. But as will become clear, the disclosure officer’s addendum will assume much greater significance “I did not think we held this information”
A second request on this topic to GMP, made by the author of this piece, in August, 2016, and not finalised until the end of November, 2016 ran counter to that first request. A list of outside police force investigations, and peer reviews, belatedly provided by GMP in its response, did NOT include the Met peer review requested by chief constable Hopkins. It disclosed just two investigations: one each by Kent and Durham constabularies. The former almost certain to be the inquiry into corruption allegations made by John Buttress. That stated absence of data held, concerning the ill-starred Metropolitan Police peer review, also assumes importance as this story unfolds.
A similar request was made, simultaneously, to the three Yorkshire police forces, concerning outside force investigations, all of which can be characterised as troubled and time consuming. Including the perennially hopeless North Yorkshire Police being forced, by formal notice, to respond by the ICO, and, as such, amidst this maelstrom, the significance of the GMP misrepresentation was, regrettably, overlooked.
In June 2017, Mr Crow returned to the fray and the matter of the peer review was raised again via a FOI request. The GMP output was helpful to a degree, and disclosed that Supt Randall was part of a team of four; the GMP officers said to be involved were Head of PSB, Chief Superintendent Annette Anderson, Randall’s direct contact, and Deputy Chief Constable Ian Pilling. The terms of reference for the review had been drafted by the Met, and were part of the final report. GMP concluded by saying that “there is no intended date for publication of this document”. Which, may yet, prove to be a particularly clever choice of words.
At this point, there is still no intervention by the local newspaper, almost two years after their front page splash. Which now looked, increasingly, like a hollow GMP public relations exercise, in which Hopkins had tossed the local ‘social watchdogs’ (as journalists are sometimes dubbed) a tasty bone to keep them quiet.
After the furore over the Hopkins ‘lie’ about the first of the two The Times articles in June, 2018 it was decided, by the author of this piece and Pete Jackson, to re-visit the matter of the Hopkins/Met peer review. The lack of output by the force, and the local newspaper, was suspicious – and a quick assessment of the information available, via both open source and other documents sourced by each of the two, warranted a more in-depth investigation. This was to be assisted by drawing on the knowledge of a network of police and journalist sources – and another two FOI requests. One to the Met (in the event, it actually became two) and one to GMP.
The peer review ‘net’ was closing on Hopkins and GMP. It was not realised at the time that some big Metropolitan Police ‘fish’ might became snared, too.
The first request was made to the Met on 23rd July, 2018 and the second to GMP on 29th August, 2018. The latter is much the simpler to report upon: GMP have ignored the request completely. No acknowledgement, no finalisation, no explanation, no apology. NOTHING. The Independent Office for Police Conduct has, effectively, forced GMP to record a conduct complaint against their head of the information disclosure unit – and the ICO will shortly be issuing an enforcement notice compelling GMP to answer the request.
The inference being, of course, that to respond to the request is almost certain to disclose wrongdoing by very senior officers within GMP. Notably, the two Ians, Hopkins and Pilling.
This is the request in full:
“Dear Greater Manchester Police (GMP),
Please disclose, by way of the Freedom of Information Act, the following information:
1. Date of hot debrief given by Supt Gary Randall of Metropolitan Police (Met) and copies of notes taken at that meeting and/or reports made afterwards.
2. Pocket note book, or day book, entries of GMP officers present at debrief that relate to their attendance at/participation in the debrief.
3. Copy of Peer Review Terms of Reference (ToR) agreed between DCC Ian Pilling and DAC Fiona Taylor, together with email and/or letter correspondence between those two officers pertaining to the Peer Review ToR’s.
4. Copy of Peer Review report delivered by Met to GMP. If it is intended to rely on any exemptions under the Act then I request that the following information is disclosed pending appeal against such exemption(s).
a. Date of report
b. Date received by GMP
c. Copy of Met’s covering letter that accompanied the report.
d. Number of pages that comprise the report, excluding any annex, appendices.
5. Copy of any post-Peer Review report correspondence between DCC Pilling and/or DAC Taylor and Supt Randall.
The reader is invited to draw their own conclusions of the efficacy of that request and the likelihood of the dire consequences in responding.
The responses to information request to the Met, and its subsequent follow-up request, have also been, on any view, disappointing and frustrating. A sorry tale of deceit and subterfuge that exposes the country’s largest police force, once revered as ‘Scotland Yard‘, as a dishonest, incompetent shambles who will, it seems, go to any lengths, and put, often unsuspecting, junior officers in the firing line to avoid the exposure of senior officer misconduct.
This is the full text of the first request:
“Dear Metropolitan Police Service (MPS),
In November, 2015 there was widespread press, and broadcast, publicity concerning an announcement by the chief constable of GMP that he had invited the Metropolitan Police Service (MPS) to conduct a review of the operations of his PSB.
In this regard, please provide the following information:
1. Date the Peer Review commenced.
2. The name(s)/rank(s) of the Gold Commander or Gold Command Group.
3. Date the Peer Review ended.
4. Date the Peer Review report was delivered to the GMP chief constable.
5. The operational name given to the Peer Review.
The sharp-eyed will spot that the answers to questions 1 and 3 were already available as open source material. But they were asked again as a ‘test’ of the veracity of the police responses. It was allocated a Met Freedom of Information Request Reference Number of 2018070000913. The response from the Met was suspiciously speedy and an Information Manager, Ian Burgess, said they did NOT hold ANY information about the GMP Peer Review at all. NOTHING.
At the time, that was viewed, understandably, as an outrageous lie and challenged accordingly. After all, GMP had provided responses ‘to the world’ (as all FOI responses are) that confirmed the existence of the peer review; named the investigating officer, the size of his team and the date it had taken place. But, as already discovered, all is not as it seems with this peer review. Nevertheless, the willingness of the police to lie about it is deeply troubling.
After receiving the complaint, the Met upheld it, changed their position and disclosed that information about the peer review is, in fact, held. Or, so they say.
The name of the person dealing with the complaint was, quite extraordinarly, redacted from the response. However, the Met now aligned themselves with earlier GMP responses and said that the peer review took place on 9th/10th May, 2016. There was no Gold Commander (or Gold Group) nominated and, it follows, no operational codename given to the investigation. The peer review report, or outcome, or both, was delivered to GMP on 22nd December, 2016, they said.
The officer who dealt with the internal review was Yvette Taylor, another Information Manager. Not, in any way, independent from the officer finalising the request, which places the Met in breach of the College of Policing’s Authorised Professional Practice and the same organisation’s Code of Ethics. Ms Taylor mis-spelled the name of the requester and, apart from that fundamental error, her response can be safely characterised as overly bullish; saying it was all just a mistake and denying that the Met had lied about not having any information about the peer review. On any independent review of the two responses, it would be hard to conclude otherwise. One says one thing, the second says the complete opposite.
Having eked out of the Met that information was admitted as held, the second, ‘killer’, information request was made on 23rd August, 2018:
“Dear Metropolitan Police Service (MPS),
Having now established that disclosable information concerning the Greater Manchester Police (GMP) Peer Review is held by MPS DPS, may I please make a further request? I accept and understand that this second request will carry a different reference number and may attract exemptions, redactions under the Act. However, given the nature of the materials requested to be disclosed, and my experience as an information rights practitioner dealing almost exclusively with policing bodies, it is anticipated that the effects of such exemptions would be very limited indeed.
1. a. Copy of all email and letter correspondence between DAC Fiona Taylor and DCC Ian Pilling where the communication contains reference to the Peer Review.
b. Copy of all email and letter correspondence between Supt Gary Randall and any GMP officer where the communication contains reference to the Peer Review.
NB: In response to journalistic enquiries made of GMP’s press office, it has been confirmed that DAC Taylor and DCC Pilling were the two senior officers whom, between them, agreed the Terms of Reference for the Peer Review. In a previous FOI request finalisation on the WhatDoTheyKnow website, GMP disclosed that Supt Randall was the officer who carried out the Peer Review.
2. Copy of Terms of Reference
3. Copy of Final Report delivered by MPS to GMP on 22nd December, 2016.
4. Copy of any response(s) received by MPS from GMP after the delivery of the Peer Review.
5. Copy of amended Peer Review, if any such amendments were made.
The drafting of the information request was greatly aided by the response to a query put to the GMP press office immediately prior to submission of the FOI request. That had informed that Deputy Assistant Commissioner Fiona Taylor was the Met officer who set the terms of reference for the peer review, and had corresponded with Ian Pilling in so doing.
The FOI request is tightly drawn and involves, one might believe, information readily retreivable and disclosable. A report concerning a peer review that lasted just two days, which may have included travel to London and back, and, they say, a ‘hot debrief’, cannot amount to a great deal in terms of either content, or substance.
A well-informed police source has posited that the hot debrief might well have been an Oldham Road curry, and a few pints of lager, to send the Londoners on their way. It has also been hypothesised, on a more serious note, that if there was a hot debrief then it is likely that there was no intention by the Met to put anything to paper, subsequently.
GMP are a force, as seen in the recent ‘body parts’ scandal, acutely aware of the dangers of holding documents that could be disclosed under freedom of information law. They are prepared to burn them, it seems, rather than damage reputations of senior officers.
But a two day jaunt up to Manchester, a bit of ‘lessons learned’ patter, a jolly on the second night, and there you go: Job done. Peer reviewed. No paper trail, if awkward questions asked later by prying journalists.
Since the 23rd August, 2018 FOI submission, the Met has made a variety of excuses that, like the parallel GMP request, has necessitated the involvement of the IOPC and the ICO.
On 3rd September, 2018 a note was received from Peter Deja, a Support Officer in the Met 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 the 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, informs that the Met are seeking an extension of time for response to the request. She says: “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 response 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”.
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 Pete Jackson, and said they wanted to run the story. But still no interest from the supine Manchester Evening News.
This latest complaint drew a partial, and largely unsatisfactory, response from the Met, 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
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 certain, one way or another, to damage senior officer reputations in two very large police forces.
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 four (it is now twenty seven and counting). “Urgently” and “Shortly” in Met-speak now extends, astonishingly, to thirty seven 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. 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’.
So, at the date this article is first published, on Sunday 11th November, 2018, and as the nation stands silent to honour our fallen, particularly those in the Great War that ended one hundred years ago, so too does the Metropolitan Police and Greater Manchester Police. Over disclosure of the materials that will reveal one of three things:
1. The peer review never took place at all. Previous responses by GMP to requests about it were deliberately false and, correspondingly, the first response by the Met was, in fact, correct: They did not hold any information about the peer review, as stated in their information request finalisation on 8th August, 2018. It should also be noted that GMP in one of their first finalisations also said they didn’t hold any information. The request finalised in November, 2016 also made no mention of a peer review supposedly undertaken by the Met five months earlier.
2. The peer review did take place, but was a complete sham. A six week investigation, promised very loudly by chief constable Hopkins, was cut down to just two days. It is said to have taken place in May 2016. Six months after the ‘all guns blazing’ press announcement. The report of that review then took over SEVEN months to deliver from the Met to GMP. It can amount to very little, or nothing. Apart from the usual, all pals at the Palais, police investigating themselves, ‘whitewash’.
3. The peer review did take place, but there was never any intention to produce a closing report. The hot debrief was all that was planned, and then executed on the second of the two days that the Met were said to be carrying out the review. Supt Randall may also never have left his New Scotland Yard office. It may have been a systems review that was conducted electronically, with a debrief via video conference. A tick-in-a-box exercise that is a long, long way short of what GMP’s chief splashed on the front page of the local evening newspaper in November, 2015.
Manchester’s finest have already said they have no intention of publishing the report, yet GMP’s PSB is now engulfed in far worse scandals than they were in 2015. The Metropolitan Police, and almost certainly by now, the National Police Chiefs Council, are very likely colluding with GMP as to how reputational damage can now be limited, and the jobs of Ian Hopkins, and potentially, Ian Pilling can be saved.
If the peer review didn’t take place at Manchester HQ, and a large number of police sources cannot find a single GMP officer that can say that it did, then the only feasible redress is resignation by at least one of the big two chief officers, plus at least one senior Met officer who has taken part with GMP in the charade over the past three months. The list of suspects is small.
If the peer review did take place, then it could still prove the straw that breaks the proverbial back of Hopkins. His standing as a public figure, and, more crucially, as a warranted police officer, has been seriously undermined by the series of stories in The Times. He stands accused of lying about the infamous Operation Poppy investigations. In the circumstances outlined in this piece, he would have conned the public of Greater Manchester over another promised investigation. Whilst all the time the dire situation in PSD – whatever spin he might try to put on it – just goes from very bad to even worse. The chief constable’s position would, on any view outside of the police service, be untenable. Within his own force, and on the fringes, the private view of a significant number officers, past and present, is that he does not have the requisite competencies, and unimpeachable integrity, to lead the Manchester police. The peer review debacle very much underscores that view.
But the real losers in this sorry saga are the taxpaying public, whose confidence in the country’s two largest police forces is certain to receive another knock and their belief in MP’s, and other elected officials, such as the Mayors of both Manchester and London, further undermined as they all stand idly by whilst Acts of Parliament are ransacked by those they are paid to hold to account.
This is a story that, quite obviously, has still some way to run.
Page last updated on Sunday 11th November, 2018 at 2250hrs
Picture credit: The Guardian Media Group
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