Chief Constable and Police Commissioner face court action over persistent data and information breaches

County Court claims have been filed naming Julia Mulligan, the Police and Crime Commissioner for North Yorkshire and her Chief Constable, Dave Jones, as defendants over persistent breaches of both the Data Protection Act, 1998 and the Freedom of Information Act, 2000.

The court action in both cases has been taken out by investigative journalist, Neil Wilby.

Recovery of costs of the time spent dealing with both the PCC’s office, and the police force’s Civil Disclosure Unit, over their failure to comply with the law over two data subject access and eleven freedom of information requests is claimed.

One information request made by Mr Wilby took 373 days before a response was given. The request simply asked for the number of sergeants in the force with the surname ‘Smith’.

A court order compelling the Commissioner and the Chief Constable to lawfully dispose of the data and information requests within 14 days is also sought.

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The PCC’s acting Chief Executive, Simon Dennis, initially instructed Joint Corporate Legal Services, which serves both the police force and the PCC’s office, to respond to the claim.

Acting Force Solicitor and Head of Legal Services, Jane Wintermeyer, confirmed receipt of those instructions from the PCC and intimated that her department would also deal with the claim against the Chief Constable, once it has been served on him by the court.

Mrs Wintermeyer also says: “The Civil Disclosure Unit are (sic) continuing to deal with the  outstanding Subject Access Request, FOI’s and Reviews and will revert as soon as they can”. Which is, on any reasonable view, a frank admission that the PCC and the force are operating outside of the law in dealing with Mr Wilby’s requests.

However, following objections raised by Mr Wilby to both Mr Dennis and the Chief Constable, Mrs Wintermeyer was replaced by an outside firm of solicitors. Leeds law firm, Weightmans, has filed the acknowledgement of service with the court. The protest against the involvement of Mrs Wintermeyer was grounded in the fact that she is presently the subject of two serious, and unresolved, conduct complaints.

The involvement of Weightmans has already proved controversial. Their senior partner, Nick Collins, who is handling the claim had, in early skirmishes, made the quite astonishing assertion that ALL of Mr Wilby’s freedom of information requests were classified by both North Yorkshire Police and the PCC’s office as “vexatious”. He has since withdrawn the allegation, confirmed that NONE of the requests were in fact vexatious, and offered a retraction and an apology. He claims that he was NOT acting on instructions from the police or the Commissoner’s office when making this outrageous and offensive claim – and that he simply made it up himself.

Unperturbed, the errant lawyer then ventures into the area of “vexatious” data subject access requests. Data access is governed by S7 of the Data Protection Act and the concept of a “vexatious” request under the Act would test even the most experienced data practitioners. There is certainly no legal precedent that is readily accessible and, despite being invited to provide one, Mr Collins has so far declined to do so.

As Mr Wilby has only ever made one data request each to North Yorkshire Police and the PCC – neither of which are finalised appropriately several months later – it is difficult to see where Mr Collins is going with this inference.

There has, however, been no retraction of another wild, unevidenced assertion by Mr Collins to the effect that the “large” number of information requests made by Mr Wilby (a total of nineteen in two years by an investigative journalist to two different data controllers) was a significant factor in causing 500+ other requests per year to be finalised outside of the statutory period. Made all the more incredible by that fact that published data shows non-compliance was at its worst before Mr Wilby made his first of those requests in September 2014.

To top that all off, Mr Collins asserts that his clients have not broken the law: In the face of the most compelling and overwhelming evidence. He is refusing to say whether he is acting on instructions from the police, and the PCC, in order to make such claims or, as with the false ‘vexatious’ submission, he has simply made this up himself, as well.

But the biggest difficulty of all faced by Mr Collins is that he has signed Statements of Truth, below the two Defence documents filed on behalf of the Chief Constable, and the Police Commissioner, that are both palpably false. It would also be difficult to persuade a judge that he had an honest belief in their truth, given what he has alleged and then later admitted.

He is presently the subject of a complaint to the Solicitors Regulatory Authority – and Mr Wilby has invited the court, in his Reply to Defence, to apply sanctions against Mr Collins under Civil Procedure Rule 32.14 which deals with false witness evidence (see below).

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All these shenanigans, which have also included peremptory, dark threats as to the financial consequences to Mr Wilby of not abandoning the claims, have already cost the North Yorkshire precept payer a sum estimated to be in excess of £20,000. Weightmans were invited, as a matter relevant to the issues in dispute, and to the proportionality of their defence, to state exactly how much has been charged. They have, so far, declined to do so. Indeed, they didn’t even have the courtesy to acknowledge the email bearing the request.

Poor communication, and lack of candour, by Mr Collins is a recurrent feature of Mr Wilby’s interaction with him, which reflects poorly on the professionalism of that law firm. That is also, it seems, reflected higher up the Weightmans food chain. In an increasingly tetchy interchange with their partner responsible for regulatory matters, James Holman, the firm refused to tell Mr Wilby, even when pressed on the subject, whether Mr Collins faced sanction internally over his conduct. In those circumstances, the working hypothesis has to be that there is nothing of this nature in the offing.

Mr Holman also insisted that having to be nudged for a response over a complaint of this seriousness did not constitute discourtesy. Mr Wilby has, sensibly, agreed to disagree with him.

Weightmans have, however, pledged to co-operate with the SRA’s investigation into the conduct of Mr Collins.

Freedom of information requests were made necessary to establish how much is being spent on defending these claims, by the police and the PCC, via their big city lawyers. Full details of both of these requests can be read here and here. The information requests also sought to establish which senior NYP and NYPCC officers are giving instructions to Mr Collins. Which, in itself, was expected to be revelatory. No information has been forthcoming. The original requests were the subject of an internal review prior to the matter being referred as a complaint to the Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO).

Some weeks ago, in an effort to resolve matters, Mr Wilby suggested that the total sum sought, in both of his claims, for his loss of earnings and disbursements (the grand total of £385), be donated to a charity of the Chief Constable’s choice. That, so far, has proved unacceptable to the profligate Chief, and his Commissioner, as a means of settling the matter.

There is also an issue with the form of words concerning the declaration of the court, sought by Mr Wilby, to the effect that the police and the PCC have both acted unlawfully, and the future remedy for such conduct. The fact that both the police and the PCC have continued to routinely break the law SINCE court proceedings were issued only serves to exacerbate the issue.

Interestingly, a complaint made by Mr Wilby in July, 2015 concerning Mrs Mulligan’s failure to hold the Chief Constable to account over Freedom of Information Act failings was NOT upheld by the Police and Crime Scrutiny Panel for North Yorkshire (PCP).

Between April 2012 and June 2015, NYP’s Civil Disclosure Unit failed to determine 1,558 (One thousand five hundred and fifty eight) freedom of information requests within the statutory 20 working day period. These figures, although known at the time by Mrs Mulligan, were not disclosed to the PCP in her formal response to Mr Wilby’s complaint. That matter will be re-addressed at the conclusion of the present court proceedings. Alongside a complaint from another journalist, Nigel Ward, who has an unfinalised information request dating back to 22nd February, 2015. Yes, 2015.

Mrs Mulligan now also has the unenviable record of a 100% failure rate over compliance in finalising data access requests. Over the past three years, there have also been a staggering 103 non-compliant data access requests finalised by the force. That might be a tough one for the PCP to find a workaround, when that fact is put to them formally about their ‘open and transparent’ PCC.

At a hearing on Monday 10th October, 2016, in  Huddersfield County Court, applications by the two policing chiefs to (i) transfer the claims to Leeds County Court before HHJ Gosnell (ii) strike out the claims or, (iii) alternatively, grant summary judgement in their favour were all dismissed.

The district judge found that there was a case to answer on the alleged breach by the chief contsable; an admission of breach by the police commissioner. It was also a finding that the matters concerning the information requests fell away, as their had been no formal application to allow in amended particulars, filed and served on 1st September, 2016, that went beyond the police chiefs’ defence grounded in S56 of the Freedom of Information Act. The judge did make the point that it was open to Mr Wilby to make a new claim against either police chief (or both), grounded in breach of duty, negligence and discrimination, rather than a breach of the Act per se.

The present claims against both the Chief Constable and the Police Commissioner were listed as back-to-back final hearings on the following morning before the same judge. They were represented by junior barrister, Sophie Mitchell, of St Paul’s Chambers in Leeds.

As on the previous day, Ms Mitchell did not distinguish herself. At the applications hearing she had attempted to hand a 16 page skeleton argument over to both the judge, and Mr Wilby, six minutes before the hearing. It was not accepted by either.

At the substantive hearings, Ms Mitchell produced a thick volume of legal authorities, of approximately 200 un-numbered pages, as the hearing was about to start. Whilst that was not, in itself, fatal to the administration of justice, the very late service – and unsatisfactory composition – of the trial bundle was. It had not reached the judge having only been despatched from Weightmans late on the previous Friday afternoon.

Mr Wilby was able to retrieve two sizeable lever arch files from his neighbour’s house (to where they had been delivered by the postal service on Saturday afternoon) at 7.30pm the previous evening. It is unclear when Ms Mitchell received her copy of the trial bundle but she claimed, to the astonishment of most of those present in the courtroom, that she hadn’t read it. In particular, Mr Wilby’s witness evidence around which the whole trial centred. At that point, the judge allowed a short adjournment for Ms Mitchell to read up on the case.

When court resumed, Ms Mitchell attempted to cross examine Mr Wilby over materials upon which the defence relied, but were not exhibited in the trial bundle. It was clear that proceedings could not continue in this fashion. The judge, accordingly, stood both of the cases down and made Orders for case management and re-listing.

The performance of both Mr Collins, in terms of the preparation for the trial and Ms Mitchell in how she prepared and advocated for her clients, both fell some way short of the professional standards that courts and litigation opponents can rightly expect. On this subject the last word goes to well known York-based governance adviser, Gwen Swinburn, who attended the adjourned final hearings:

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The Chief Constable, Mrs Mulligan and Mr Collins have all been approached for specific comment on this article. None of the three even had the courtesy to acknowledge the email carrying the request.

Mr Holman was also approached and his views have been taken into account when detailing the interaction with him, concerning the complaint against Mr Collins. He has asked Mr Wilby not to contact him further.

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Page last updated Thursday 13th October, 2016 at 1435hrs

© Neil Wilby 2015-2016. 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.

 

Police and Crime Commissioners, Scrutiny Panels and some ‘holding to account’ myths

In November 2012, voters in forty-one police areas in England and Wales went to the ballot box and elected Police and Crime Commissioners (PCC) for the first time. They would replace the moribund police authorities, which had existed since the abolition of watch committees in 1964.

The three principal functions of a PCC were, by statute, to be the drawing up of policing priorities, setting the budget for their force and holding the Chief Constable to account.

As part of the same Police Reform and Social Responsibility Act, Police & Crime Panels (PCP) were to be established to provide financial and performance scrutiny, deal with complaints and to hold the PCC to account. The Panels were established in line with the legislation, comprising of a large number of elected local councillors and a small number of independent nominees. It was a natural sinecure for former police authority incumbents.

The Police Commissioner poll was, by general consensus, badly conceived, poorly executed and resulted in voter turnouts at unprecedentedly low levels. It resulted in almost all of the successful candidates having a mandate from their electorate of less than 8%. It was a notable Home Office failure.

It comes as no surprise in this maelstrom to find that some of the new PCC’s were to prove either incapable of fulfilling the role or to have have been embroiled in controversy of varying degrees of seriousness: Bedford’s Olly Martins, Cumbria’s Richard Rhodes, Durham’s Ron Hogg, Kent’s Anne Barnes, Lancashire’s Clive Grunshaw have all faced Independent Police Complaints Commission (IPCC) investigation and, most notoriously, Shaun Wright resigned his South Yorkshire post following the breaking of the Rotherham children abuse scandal and Wright’s alleged complicity in it.

West Yorkshire’s Mark Burns-Williamson has narrowly avoided IPCC investigation over criminal complaints thus far (three previous referrals to them and one being presently considered) but has suffered the ignominy of having a Chief Constable he hand-picked being suspended for over a year over bribery allegations and Mark Gilmore is still, to date, on gardening leave whilst Lancashire Police conduct further investigations under the codename Operation Barium, and led by ACC Tim Jacques. Burns-Williamson did not come out unscathed either, in the IPCC investigation that followed the sudden, and controversial, retirement of Sir Norman Bettison.

He is joined in this calamitous situation by Avon and Somerset’s Sue Mountstevens, who dispensed with an incumbent Chief Constable (Colin Port) to install York born and bred Nick Gargan. After a suspension of over a year, whilst the IPCC conducted an investigation-cum-fishing expedition, Ms Mountstevens has asked Gargan to resign. A decision which was the subject of challenge by Gargan and over which the Police Scrutiny Panel were due to have the last say. In the event, Gargan tendered his resignation on 16th October, 2015 and it was accepted with immediate effect. Thus, apparently, ending a saga which is estimated to have cost approaching £1 million.

Over in Lincolnshire, former ITV Calendar presenter Alan Hardwick wrongly suspended his Chief Constable, Neil Rhodes. The £500,000 High Court spat that followed completely exonerated Rhodes, as did the subsequent Operation Redbone police investigation conducted by Sir Peter Fahy of Greater Manchester Police. At the core of the dispute were allegations made by the West Yorkshire PCC’s Chief Executive, Fraser Sampson, who emerged with little credit at the conclusion of the saga.

Amidst all of this controversy, there has been an almost eerie silence from the Scrutiny Panels and no visible holding to account. Even allowing for the limitations placed upon the Panels by the woefully-drafted Elected Local Policing Bodies (Complaints and Misconduct) Regulations, there has been no robust condemnation of some notably poor conduct. As with their police authority predecessors, drawing a handsome honorarium and not rocking the boat is, seemingly, the priority.

The North Yorkshire PCC, Julia Mulligan, is Chair of the Transparency and Integrity Standing Group at the Association of Police and Crime Commissioners, an organisation set up – and funded by – the Home Office. No criticism of her colleagues’ behaviour by Mrs Mulligan can be traced by searching the internet. Apart from her sub-group role Mrs Mulligan is also a Main Board Member of the APCC. Along with, incidentally, the aforementioned Mark Burns-Williamson.

Mrs Mulligan, whose husband Paddy is both a local and county councillor in North Yorkshire, earned the notable distinction of polling the highest percentage vote (58.25) of all the PCC election ballots, but by way of the sixth lowest turnout (13.25%), has neither suffered such widespread opprobrium nor has she, so far, been referred to the IPCC (or, in this writer’s certain knowledge, ever looked likely to be) over her conduct, by the PCP sub-committee that handles complaints against her.

It is known that of the eight complaints made against Mrs Mulligan, in the near three year period since she was elected, three are from journalists (this writer and two others I will not name, at this stage, as Mrs Mulligan is funding civil action against them) and one is from a retired Middlesbrough solicitor, Anthony Nixon. The Nixon complaints are in the public domain and can be read at this link.

Two of the journalist complaints were both concerned with poor communication from the PCC’s office and, also, of prejudicial treatment against each of them when pursuing complaints on behalf of others, in the public interest. Broken promises, and insulting comments made by Mrs Mulligan, were amongst other issues cited in the complaints. She has also refused, for over two years, to apologise to one of the journalists after being recommended to do so, by the PCP, following the upholding of his complaint: A rare instance, indeed, of the PCP holding their PCC to account. Albeit, with little or no discernible effect. The complaint from ‘Mr H’ – and its outcome can be read here.

But it is the latest of these complaints to have been lodged against Mrs Mulligan that has, arguably, caused her, and the North Yorkshire PCP, the most angst. These are the core of those complaints, submitted by this writer:

  • She has failed to hold the Chief Constable to account over (a) a bomb hoax that appears, on the face of it, to have been instigated deliberately by police officers in Northallerton (b) woeful outcomes delivered on a regular basis by the force’s professional standards department, at least one of which was widely reported in the regional and national press. Read more here. (c) routine breaking of the law concerning disposal of freedom of information requests (d) victim support – specifically not providing written outcomes to complainants/victims of crime (e) 101 service being not fit for purpose
  • She failed to comply with her statutory duty (See here for The Elected Policing Bodies [Specified Information] Order 2011) to provide a Decision Notice, concerning the expenditure of several hundred thousand pounds funding a civil court claim, filed by three very senior police officers and six members of the public. Two months after this complaint was recorded – and very probably ten months after it should, lawfully, have been published, a Decison Notice (of sorts) appeared on the PCC website. It’s full text can be read here and is presently the subject of robust challenge, by way of a judicial review application. A Letter before Action was served on Mrs Mulligan on 9th November, 2015.
  • The legality (vires) of that funding was also raised in the complaint and is, also, argued in the judicial review application referred to above.
  • She allegedly made defamatory statements concerning two local journalists in public statements published in two regional newspapers and on the police force website.
  • There were other minor matters concerning failures to engage effectively (a regular feature of earlier complaints against Mrs Mulligan) and one which is still very much extant. For example, she has so far failed to acknowledge the letter despite being specifically requested to do so.

These complaints were recorded by the PCP Secretariat on 30th July 2015 and considered by the Panel complaints sub-committee on 19th August. At which, the notably weak submissions of the PCC (compiled by her Chief Executive) in response to the complaints were considered. The three sub-committee members, presumably acting on advice from the Panel’s legal officer, Barry Khan, decided that some of the more serious elements of the complaint were to be referred to the next full Scrutiny Panel meeting, where Mrs Mulligan was to be questioned on these. So far, so good: A discernible level of holding to account by the PCP.

That full meeting, which took place on 8th October 2015 had been in the calendar, and advertised on the PCP website, for months. Mrs Mulligan, allegedly, told the Panel Secretariat that she wasn’t able to attend the Panel meeting and the Secretariat declined twice to respond to written requests from this writer to provide an explanation for her absence. Which is a most peculiar stance to adopt, from a body whose principal purpose is to hold the PCC to account.

After persisting via social media, this writer was able to obtain details of Julia Mulligan’s diary for 8th October, the day she was supposed to be facing questions over the complaints against her at the Panel meeting. The diary shows she was in her office making, and receiving, phone calls. On any independent view, fairly routine stuff and certainly nothing in the way of a good and sufficient excuse not to be at the PCP meeting. All public entreaties to her office, via social media, to elicit the reason for Mrs Mulligan’s absence from the Panel meeting failed.

The presumption is this: There is no viable reason – and the North Yorkshire Police and Crime Scrutiny Panel are now complicit in the failure of their PCC to hold the Chief Constable to account and, further, are not overly exercised in holding Mrs Mulligan to account, either.

Both the office of PCC Julia Mulligan, the Panel Secretariat and its Chair, Cllr Carl Les, were approached for comment on the matters set out above. Mrs Mulligan’s staff officer, Will Naylor, claims that she was told by the Panel ‘she was not needed at the meeting’ which is at complete odds with what this writer was told, in writing, by the Panel Secretariat’s Corporate Development Officer, Ray Busby. The Panel, through Cllr Les, responded with a statement that, in parts, stretched the bounds of credulity and further clarification has been sought from him before his response is published. In the interim period, this writer is happy to reproduce the factual part of Cllr Les’s statement: ‘During the (period) since Mrs Mulligan took office, the Panel has met fifteen times. Mrs Mulligan has attended all those meetings, except the one on 8th October, (2015)’

It is unclear, at this stage, whether Mrs Mulligan’s absence was connected to a Conservative Party PCC selection meeting, on 15th October, at which she was re-selected as candidate for the May 2016 election. Presumably Cllr Les, as Chair of North Yorkshire County Council, as well as the Police Scrutiny Panel would have had a big say in that. As, it is reasonable to assume, would Cllr Les’s fellow County Councillor, Paddy Mulligan.

It is also worth recording at this point that Cllr Les has come under journalist scrutiny from in the past, over expense claim and register of interests issues (read here) which might lead some to question as to whether he is, in fact, the right person to be holding the Police Commissioner to account. Mr Les has also refused an interview with this writer, in an attempt to get to the bottom of this farrago.

For his part, Ray Busby, has now decided that being asked, in his role as a public servant, to provide honest answers to polite, if awkward, public interest questions by a journalist concerning legitimate business with the Panel is just too much for him to bear. He has requested that this writer does not contact him again, directly. Not much evidence of holding to account there, either.

This is a story that will run for some time yet and one that will be regularly updated as more information is prised from the relevant authorities by way of Freedom of Information requests, or the judicial review challenge to the Decision Notice referred to above.

But one crystal clear view has emerged from this sorry saga: The Police and Crime Scrutiny Panel in North Yorkshire is a sham, and a shambles, and it fails in its primary duty to hold to account the Police and Crime Commissioner, Mrs Mulligan.