‘A grubby little police force’

This catchphrase, now widely shared on social media and indelibly associated with Durham Constabulary, was first coined in November 2016 as part of communication between journalist, Neil Wilby, and the force, concerning a concise, plainly expressed freedom of information request (read in full here).

The disposal of that request quickly turned very ugly after Durham made, very arguably, the worst and most offensive response in the history of the Freedom of Information Act, 2000. It was an unwarranted, unvarnished, libellous attack by a police force, against an enquiring reporter, that also contained a series of deliberate and inexcusable untruths. There had never been any communication or interaction between them prior to that request, which made a response of that deeply offensive nature all the more inexplicable and inexcusable.

Those police officers responsible, both civilian and warranted, should, on any independent view, have faced a criminal investigation or, at the very least, a disciplinary hearing. A clearer case of misconduct in public office or, in police regulations parlance, disreputable conduct, would be hard to find.

Interestingly, the senior officer with portfolio holder responsibility for information rights at that time was Deputy Chief Constable Jo Farrell, since promoted to the top rank following the sudden, inexplicable ‘retirement’ of her predecessor, the vastly overblown Mike Barton.

Their motivation, it seems, was to frustrate a journalistic investigation into yet another shoddy operation, in a lengthy cataloge in that era, by North Yorkshire Police. Durham’s part in that probe is that they had, allegedly, taken over a fraud investigation from NYP as it involved a very prominent, and influential, former police authority Chair in North Yorkshire, Jane Kenyon. Over the years, a regular object of derision in the satirical magazine, Private Eye, regarding her dubious business dealings (read more here).

The criminal ‘investigation’ also featured Thomas William Miller, a Scarborough councillor better known as Bill, who is now married to Kenyon. The victims of the alleged fraud were one Miller’s sons, Jeremy, and his daughter in law, Karen. All four had been involved in a company called Dales Timber Ltd.

In the event, disclosure was refused by Durham after a series of ludicrous, childish, unlawful posts on the What Do They Know website, upon which the request was first posted. They relied on Section 14 of the Act, saying the request was ‘vexatious’, without actually explaining why.

Following a complaint to the Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO), the Durham decision was overturned. During the watchdog’s investigation the police force continued their smearing campaign against the journalist. Given weight to the argument that this was not about an information request but much more about pursuing a vendetta.

They eventually, and reluctantly, made partial disclosure from which it could readily be deduced that the fraud ‘investigation’ on behalf of NYP was a sham. There was simply no intention to gather probative evidence, take statements from key witnesses and/or suspects, seize evidence or apply the necessary rigour to what, on any independent view, was a very serious matter involving a high profile public figure with a history of dodgy dealing. Efforts since, via the Police and Crime Commissioner, the disgraced Julia Mulligan, a close Conservative Party associate of Jane Kenyon, to have the flawed fraud investigation re-opened, were vigorously rebuffed.

The outfall from that venomous attack by Durham is still the subject of civil proceedings that were first brought in November, 2017 against Durham, who have done everything they can to frustrate that process. A resumed hearing is listed for November 2020. The first, in December, 2019, was adjourned due to the court not allocating sufficient time for the hearing to be completed. [The court service’s over- listing of multiple back-to-back hearings, with no provision for urgent or emergency matters to be dealt with by district judges, will be the subject of a future article].

The claim has been brought by way of section 13(2) the Data Protection Act, 1998 (since superceded) following the sub-optimal disposal of a data subject access request; Durham’s Information Rights Manager, Leigh Davison, has admitted the breach and apologised in her witness statement but, at the same time, their counsel, Daniel Penman, pleads that there is ‘no cause of action’ and advises Durham to refuse to pay the nominal damages sought.

Penman, an oppressive, excessively bullish and sometimes foolish individual is, in those terms, ideally suited to this particular client. One of his bizarre claims, made during informal discussions with the district judge at the conclusion of the last hearing, designed only to humiliate his opponent, was that Mark Gosnell, a senior civil judge based in Leeds, is known as ‘Mr Justice Gosnell’. He was not then and is still not now a ‘red judge’; notwithstanding the very fine and highly regarded arbiter that His Honour undoubtedly is.

He did not welcome the advice from a seasoned journalist/court reporter that, without a change in approach towards other parties to litigation, or journalists, he may well not make the advance in his career his undoubted promise as an advocate might warrant. An approach also in evidence at Bradford Law Courts during a hotly contested civil claim at which both journalist and barrister were present (read here) when he and his leader, the similarly bullish Olivia Checa-Dover, tried, unsuccessfully, to prevent Neil Wilby reporting on the case. Anyone reading that trial summary will understand precisely why those instructing counsel, led by Alison Walker of West Yorkshire Police no less, would have preferred the highly controversial matters aired in the resolution of that £5 million claim, including lurid details of the activities of a “bad apple” officer (read more here), to remain concealed.

A second civil claim is to be issued shortly against Durham concerning the same data subject access request: The force, via Ms Davison, maintains that all materials to which the applicant was entitled were disclosed, when it is patently obvious that such an assertion has no basis in either the facts or evidence. There is also a peripheral issue of the torn packaging in which the subject access materials were sent. Taken at its face, a minor matter of course, but one that created significant distress and alarm at the prospect that sensitive personal data, sent out by a police force, was accessible to anyone within the postal service.

At the time, Durham didn’t even have the courtesy or professionalism to respond to the email and attached photographs, evidencing the flimsy, careless and, in fact, unlawful manner in which the data was transported. But for “a grubby little police force” that type of treatment comes as standard. They utterly resent any form of scrutiny or challenge.

Ms Davison is the subject of robust criticism, over both disclosure failings and her lack of professionalism and the seeming lack of integrity of her department, from other service users such as Huddersfield businessman Stephen Bradbury who has also succeeded at the ICO in his complaint against Durham and has been forced to issue civil proceedings, grounded in Section 168 of the Data Protection Act, 2018 and Article 82 of the General Data Protection Regulations (GDPR), over a grotesque breach of his privacy and misuse of personal data. Despite the ICO finding, the police have ignored all attempts to settle the claim without resort to legal action.

The case of local man Mel Dawson has reached the national newspapers (read here). Durham Constabulary has been responsible for a quite remarkable sequence of ‘disappearances’ of important data. Not least of which is all materials related to a search warrant that Mr Dawson asserts was unlawfully obtained.

Another more startling critic of the Information Rights Department, Ms Davison, the force’s Legal Services Department and Chief Constable Farrell is one of their former colleagues, Michael Trodden, who complains bitterly over disclosure failings relating to a criminal trial at which the detective was cleared by a jury (read here) and in misconduct proceedings that followed.

A third Yorkshire man, Darren Longthorne, together with his wife, Tracey, are also fiercely critical of Ms Davison, and others, following the death of the latter’s father and a botched investigation by Durham that followed. The inevitable disclosure failings by the police are at the heart of their complaints.

This is an emerging picture of sustained abuse of the Freedom of Information Act, the Data Protection Act and the Criminal Procedure and Investigations Act by a law enforcement agency. A national disgrace and one upon which the statutory regulator should be taking much more robust action than the occasional slap on the wrist.

It is a near certainty folowing publication of this article that other complainants will come forward and add further weight to the “grubby little police force” strapline.

More recently, yet another decision made by the ICO has gone against Durham following a further Neil Wilby information request (read in full here). The genesis of the request was the media storm over another grotesquely failed ‘outside force’ investigation. This time concerned the alleged theft of sensitive documents relating to the review of the police actions following the Loughinisland massacre in 1994.

Durham Constabulary and the two officers who led the investigation, at the invitation of the Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI), the aforementioned Barton and the civilian investigator, Darren Ellis, about whom much has been written elsewhere on this website (read more here), were absolutely slaughtered both in the High Court and the national press over their conduct – and particularly over warrants obtained unlawfully against two hugely respected Irish journalists, Trevor Birney and Barry McCaffrey. The latter two are presently involved in mediation over settlement of their claims for unlawful arrest, trespass and detention. Neither Barton nor Ellis have faced any investigation or proceedings over their ghastly conduct.

In their response to the information request, again very precisely drafted, Durham claimed that they held no information and that under the Police Act, 1996 the request should be transferred to Durham. It was a response so ludicrous that it might have been written by a 12 year old – and was nothing more than a peurile, vacuous ruse to avoid disclosing more damaging material, particularly internal and external emails, to journalist they dislike intensely. If Ms Davison didn’t write it herself (the response was sent anonymously in breach of Code of Ethics and Authorised Professional Practice), then it went out under her departmental direction and control.

The force even refused to fulfil their obligations under FOIA and, more particularly, the College of Police’s Authorised Professional Practice, regarding the request made for an internal review of the decision not to disclose anything.

Durham has also now revealed that four other requests were received on similar subject matter and they got away without making any disclosure to those applicants.

It took the ICO seven months to reach their decision but, for them, they were scathing in their criticism of Durham and directed that the request did have to be dealt with by them and all materials prior to the investigation commencing should fall for disclosure. Some, but not all, of the disclosure has now been made and, as expected, almost the entire artifice was designed to protect one man: the thoroughly disgraced Darren Ellis.

PSNI do not escape censure either as they repeatedly, and unlawfully, intervened in the request, apparently on behalf of Durham, attempting to take it over and then refusing disclosure by way of a section 31 exemption. One is entitled to muse over the calibre, and integrity, of employees of that force engaged in their disclosure unit and, of course, the unseen hands directing them from above.

The battle over the Loughinisland disclosure continues, however, as once again, it is clear that not all the materials known to be in existence at Durham have been disclosed. A matter that is, once again, destined for both the ICO and the civil courts.

In the meantime, the public are entitled to seriously question the hundreds of thousand of pounds, and countless officer hours, squandered by Durham Constabulary (and, in two of the cases, NYP and PSNI) to simply conceal materials that will further damage their reputation as “a grubby little police force”. It is a matter so serious that it should warrant a mandatory referral of the conduct of those officers involved, from the past and present chief constables downwards, to the Independent Office for Police Conduct.

The immediate past chief constable, Mike Barton, now faces an uncomfortable few weeks as the real reason for his hasty exit from the top job has been exposed by an insider. A follow-up to this article will be published during w/c 28th September, 2020, wherein those revelations will be expanded upon.

It is not a pretty picture for either Barton or his boss, the late Ron Hogg, whom, it seems, concocted the ‘spend more time in my greenhouse’ story that the local and regional media swallowed whole. Within days a national newspaper had revealed that Barton had taken on a lucrative role with a Canadian IT company (read more here). This, in addition, to continuing to pick up the pieces from his force’s failed enterprise in Northern Ireland. Both a long way from his garden in Blackpool.

Barton received a CBE on the day he required. In all truth, one is entitled to ask how he had the brass neck to accept it.

The police force press offices at Durham and PSNI, the interim Police and Crime Commissioner for Durham have all been approached for a statement.

Page last updated: Thursday 3rd September, 2020 at 1300 hours

Photo Credits:

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 2015-2020. 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.