The office of the West Midlands Police and Crime and Commissioner has used national security and law enforcement exemptions found within the Freedom of Information Act legislation to refuse our request for more information on the oversight arrangements in place to safeguard the West Midlands Police’s use of covert mobile surveillance capabilities.
The Chief Executive of the Police and Crime Commissioner has refused the request on the basis of four exemptions found within the Freedom of Information Act legislation. These were identified as:
- Section 23(5) – Information supplied by, or concerning, certain security bodies
- Section 24(2) – National Security
- Section 30(3) – Investigations and proceedings conducted by public authorities
- Section 31(3) – Law enforcement
The response is lengthy (and provided as a scanned pdf to boot), setting out in detail the reasons for the refusal. The importance of national security is emphasises. At the root of the refusal is the belief that revealing any oversight arrangements in place would confirm or deny to the world at large the very existence of the mobile surveillance capabilities.
Transparency would encourage criminal/terrorist activity (supposedly)
With this information publicly available, the Chief Executive argues criminals/terrorists would have a better understanding of police and security service capabilities and take counter-measures, thus reducing the effectiveness of police capabilities (which may or not exist, of course). This same logic could be used to diminish public transparency, accountability and trust in other areas of policing and public services. After all, surely greater public awareness of neighbourhood policing priorities could be said to advantage burglars?
The refusal to provide information is disappointed, given the Police and Crime Commissioner is already on record in an Express and Star article on mobile surveillance as saying, “We maintain close oversight of this important area of work”. By refusing the Freedom of Information request, it is impossible to verify what “close oversight” of surveillance means in practice.
Limited role for Police and Crime Commissioner in ensuring public confidence in legality of police operations
It is concerning that the FOI response appears to set a low bar for the commissioner’s role in satisfying public concern over the legality of police operations and tactics. The West Midlands Police and Crime Commissioner’s website states that one of the PCC’s three main roles is to “Hold the Chief Constable of West Midlands Police to account”. Despite having this responsibility, the commissioner believes there is “no requirement to satisfy any public concern over the legality of police operations … The force is already held to account by statute”.
Instead, the office of the commissioner directs responsibility to laws such as the Police and Criminal Evidence Act and the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act and independent bodies such as Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Constabulary, the Independent Police Complaints Commission and the Office of the Surveillance Commissioner. In the words of the office of the commissioner, “Our accountability is therefore not enhanced by confirming or denying that any information is held.”
Requesting an internal review
In line with rights under the Freedom of Information Act, we’ve requested an internal review of the refusal. We are also still waiting for a response from West Midlands Police to our request for information on the purchase and use of “covert communications data capture” or similar mobile phone surveillance and tracking devices. We will let you know how we get on.