Police have condemned some "unreasonable and burdensome" Freedom of Information requests made by the "journalistic community".
Appearing before the Independent Commission on Freedom of Information, the National Police Chiefs Council (NPCC) reserved particular criticism for requests asking about forces' use of the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act (RIPA) to identify journalists' sources. Press Gazette has submitted hundreds of FoI requests to police forces around the country over the last 18 months seeking to find out about police using of RIPA to find journalists' sources.
The body, formerly known as the Association of Chief Police Officers, has also called for powers to question the "motivations" of requests.
In his written submission, the NPCC's Ian Readhead wrote: "Whilst we welcome an increase in interest in police information and the positives this delivers in terms of public confidence, this is tarnished by the similar increase in unreasonable and burdensome requests made either by the journalistic community in simply undertaking fishing expeditions or individuals perusing personal grudges and campaign agendas.
"Even though it has become easier to rely on the Sec 14 vexatious provisions, the application of these refusals and subsequent process is undermining our ability to deliver information into the public domain for which there is true value.
"The time has now come where a real analysis of the true and pure motivations of some applicants to be addressed. Clear evidence of this can easily be found on public websites and social media, and we have even experienced newspaper/media campaigns which purely focus on undermining a non-disclosure position.
"Such bodies must also take responsibility for a more sensible and appropriate use of the legislation if it is to maintain its current credibility."
Around this time last year, several police forces branded Press Gazette “vexatious” – meaning an exemption under section 14 of the act – for submitting numerous requests about RIPA. Later, other journalists and publications – including the political website Guido Fawkes – were accused of "working collectively" with Press Gazette to find this information and barred from asking further questions under section 14.
Redhead told the commission today: “The communications commissioner issues an annual report in relation to how police forces have made applications under RIPA. It’s a commissioner’s report, it’s not our report.
“But we received a sequence of questions that were about that report before it got published. And although we made it clear that we could neither confirm nor deny what was in that report, for quite obvious reasons, we had that same question asked repeatedly.”
Press Gazette requests in relation to police forces and RIPA started before the the Interception of Communications Commissioner's (IOCCO) report on this subject was announced. Launching the report, IOCCO cited Press Gazette's Save Our Sources campaign. And when it published its report, in February last year, it recommended the central demand of the campaign: that police forces should be required to obtain judicial approval before accessing telecoms records to identify journalistic sources. This has now been passed into law.
Giving oral evidence before the commission today, Readhead dismissed some FoI requests as "absurd". He listed examples of requests relating to serial numbers of police cars and the numbers of crimes committed at the time of full moons.
“I’d like to think that there may be a method by which we could effectively deal with such applicants," Readhead said.
"We regularly employ vexatiousness [the section 14 exemption] where we think that somebody fits within that exemption. I think it’s right for us to do so because it gives us more time to then deal with the justifiable requests that we receive."
The NPCC also condemned the “burden” of some journalists submitting requests to numerous police forces. It said that in the last year it received more than 50,000 FoI requests.
“We recognise the importance that there is a process and transparency and for us to actually respond,” Readhead told the inquiry. “However, a number of requests that have been received are not in the public interest.”
Readhead's NPCC colleague Mark Wise said: “I think part of the act should allow us… actually to challenge the applicant, ask why they want the information.”
Readhead conceded that it would be difficult to write this into the FoI Act and establish motive, but added: “If as a result of the questions being asked, and if you did know from the sources of those questions, you could actually show this was just part of a general campaign, where slightly different questions were being asked time and time again of different forces in order to try and adduce a different response, and I just wonder if that might be a method. On the basis of being able to show the ICO [Information Commissioner’s Office]: ‘Look, you can see from the way in which the questions are being articulated, and the links between the people asking those questions, that this is all one of the same thing.’”
Readhead also told the commission: “About 35 per cent of the requests we receive are from journalists. And we fully recognise the right of journalists to understand what police services are doing.
“But journalists also act as campaign groups. And they can align a whole sequence of questions asking the same question time and time again of different forces in different locations…
“We need to be alert to how that can erode, again, our capability to give a proper answer and to give it once without finding that then another journalist asks a not hugely dissimilar question, that just slightly changes, to make you go through the whole process again.
“And that’s onerous and it takes a lot of our time. It’s disproportionate when you compare it to the other questions we get.”
In his written submission to the commission on behalf of the NPCC, Readhead said he was against introducing FoI fees and praised the act for making "us reflect and re-consider our working practices with respect of information disclosure".
He said: "We would suggest that without the legislation, the police service would not be delivering an effective disclosure regime as part of the government transparency agenda."
But he also noted that there are an increasing number of requests and that the burden is being felt by forces "during times of austerity".
He added: "In summary, we believe that some requests can create a disproportionate burden and it would be unfair to impose restrictions on those who clearly use the legislation in the spirit in which it was intended."
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